COMPUTER software companies are increasingly becoming ``publishers'' rather than traditional programmers.
The trend is part of the long-awaited rise of ``new media'' or ``multimedia,'' which means using the computer to present information that typically comes by way of books, audio tapes, or videos. Until recently, computers that could do this were too expensive to fuel consumer demand. But as hardware costs fall, software companies are churning out games, reference works, and other entertainment or educational titles.
``The volume level has been turned up to 10,'' says Lance Elko, editorial director of CD-ROM Today, of Greensboro, N.C. In December, the magazine reviewed a 100 new products on CD-ROM (compact disk, read-only memory), versus about 20 a month this time last year.
The biggest growth appears to be in role-playing games, such as ``Mad Dog McCree,'' a Western shootout simulation from American Laser Games, or ``Dracula Unleashed,'' an ``interactive horror movie'' from Viacom New Media.
Microsoft Corporation in Redmond, Wash., is an obvious example of a software company moving aggressively beyond its core business of creating computers' basic operating software or programs for word-processing and other functional applications. Microsoft plans to have 100 titles under its ``Home'' brand name by 1995. Current products include a flight simulator and a movie guide. Many smaller companies also are joining the hoped-for gold rush.
Another sign of CD-ROM's market presence: Blockbuster Entertainment recently began to rent and sell these products in its video rental stores.
``Celebrating the Age of New Media'' was the theme of the recent annual meeting of the Washington Software Association, a statewide industry group. The Seattle area, like parts of California, has become a hotbed of software publishing.
The big question is how far and how fast multimedia computing will spread. Currently, about 27 percent of American homes have computers, but only a fraction of those have CD-ROM machines, which sell for $200 to $450.
``It's the CD-ROM that's going to get computers into the mainstream,'' says Tamara Attard, head of Multicom Publishing in Seattle. A single CD can connect the computer to an encyclopedia's worth of sound, text, and video information.
Falling hardware prices mean that personal computers with attached CD-ROM drives are available for as little as $1,500. Analysts say the prices may finally be getting low enough for demand to take off. Mr. Elko says there is room for makers of CD-ROM software to supply niche markets. But he adds that some companies ``will fail just because they get lost in the fray.''
Big companies with name recognition, such as Microsoft, or with lots of books and other content to put out on CD-ROM, such as Time Warner, are likely to succeed, Elko says. Smaller companies, such as Multicom, are licensing works owned by large publishers. These small companies can flourish if they are creative, he predicts.
The key to any product's success will be ``giving consumers something that they can't get anywhere else,'' Mrs. Attard says.
She gives an example from Multicom, which specializes in ``lifestyle'' works. In a CD-ROM tour of America's national parks, users can move through the material like a book or tape, looking at pictures, reading text, and listening to narration, but they can also quickly search the list of parks for items they care about, such as access to fishing.