Multimedia developers beware, we want quality not quantity

Written by David Tebbutt, MacUser Jul 1989 (guess) - scanned

Have you noticed that, no matter how much disk or memory you have on your computer, you always need just a little bit more? I first learned to program on a machine with 4K memory and, instead of floppy disks, I used magnetic striped cards, each with a capacity of 300 bytes. We used to squeeze applications like payroll, sales order processing and accounts into these puny machines. Mind you, they weren't puny to look at, they were huge and demanded air-conditioned rooms. Now, a computer of many times the power is a regular occupant of my briefcase.

The computers of my early programming years were so expensive that my services as a system designer-cum-programmer came free with each one sold. Having told the customer about the marvels that the machine would perform, the salesman then left it to muggins here to make his promises come true. Fool that I was, I used to spend months in squeezing the programs into his regularly underspecified systems.

But this was all 24 years ago and we are now driven by an inverted set of values in which people's time is expensive and hardware cheap. Perhaps my brain was permanently affected by all those years of writing tight code and fitting business records into 300 bytes. I still actually enjoy programming in assembly language. The resulting programs take up little space and run very fast. They do, unfortunately, take ages to write. But now, with no significant hardware constraints, few software writers seem worried about the space occupied by their programs and data.

Talking of data, what about documentation? Have you seen the size of Lotus manuals?-they're huge. Given the success of this company, it must be a major contributor to the deforestation of our planet. And why, for goodness sake? Computers and programs are supposed to be getting easier to use. My guess, and it's probably far from original, is that this is all part of the company's 'perceived value' policy. Well, give me a small manual any day and to hell with perceived value.

By now, you must be getting the idea that I don't care much for the modern world of computers. I do. I love it. But, perhaps because of my origins, I am frequently appalled at the gratuitous waste, whether of paper, of disk or of memory. My own waste I can deal with - there's no need to keep copies of everything from the year dot, so I purge my hard disk regularly. Even so, I am amazed at how quickly I am able to fill 20 megabytes.

Any worries that I have about my own waste are dwarfed by the anxiety I feel about mass-produced waste, for example the Lotus manuals. They're only the thin end of a huge wedge which will probably have 'multimedia' written all over it. This particular type of waste will not only gobble storage space but, more importantly, it will also gobble that most precious of commodities - your time.

Imagine the impact that a lazy multimedia developer could have on your time. Imagine rummaging around millions of casually organised bytes for the exact data you need. Imagine running through minute after minute of completely irrelevant film footage in your quest for information. Imagine sitting through tedious graphic animations which are only included because they have already been commissioned and paid for.

All these things are possible and unless multimedia production becomes a managed and professional activity they will happen. I recently heard of one developer who is planning to raid film archives for material to put onto multimedia disks. This seems like a great wheeze, providing it is carefully edited to suit the randomness of multimedia. This same developer is also planning to use filmed material that never made it to the big (or small) screen. The danger of this approach is that there was probably a very good reason for it not being shown first time around. Either it was naff (fluffed lines, nervous presenter, extraneous noises), or the content was not up to scratch, or it was broadcast quality but had to be cut because of lack of air time. Hopefully, the developer will only cull extra material from this last category.

I can imagine, though, that other developers will be so anxious to fill their disks that they will not be too selective about what they include. This would be a grave mistake. It might be cheaper in the short term. It might even earn them lots of money. But, in the long term, it will irretrievably damage the publisher's reputation and, maybe, give multimedia a bad name too. Like a long-playing record with only a few decent tracks, such an approach to multimedia would be an insult to its purchaser. And I would imagine that if the publisher really took such a lazy approach to content, then any hypermedia linkages would be just as ill thought out.

Good navigational aids and searching techniques would go a long way towards overcoming the problems of poor material, in the same way that the track skipping mechanism of a compact disk helps you get round similar problems. But, even if this help is given, you are bound to be peeved if you find that large chunks of your disk contain poor material. Multimedia productions will have to be as satisfying to their users as a well-written book, or a well-acted play.

Just because we have all this extra capacity to play with, it doesn't mean that we should squander it. All multimedia developers need to realise that they have a professional responsibility to produce their disks as carefully as they would a top class television programme or film.