Manual On a Silver Platter: CD-ROMs and the Promises of a New Technology

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This needn't be the case. One promise of the Information Age is global connectivity, offering rapid access to large information stores at remote sites see Wright, It has even been suggested that the library of the future may be a computer network service rather than a building Nielsen, b, p. New problems loom when the information retrieval goes beyond simple text.

Video transmissions are bandwidth-intensive, and when distances exceed arms reach technological constraints emerge. Although typical LANs perform admirably for text of software traffic, they grind to a halt with two or three video channels. Longhaul video transmission using satellite, fibre, or microwave links is out of the question except for big corporations with big telecommunications budgets.

The personal computer was quickly followed by the portable and laptop computers.


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Down-sizing has now produced the notebook and palmtop formats. Although the portability and convenience of books cannot be topped, recent technological advances, such as the CD Walkman, foretell of the portable CD-ROM book. Recently, Sony introduced the Discman containing a 3-inch optical disc storing , pages of text.

It seems the Japanese are taking seriously the potential of the electronic book. Although portability was never realized, tales of the dynabook have inspired researchers ever since. Numerous book-like interfaces have been demonstrated e. Many design issues such as browsing and the placement of annotations or bookmarks are admirably addressed, but the products reside on microcomputers. The ability to read a book at home, in a park, or on a train is a compelling feature--one that presents a formidable challenge to computer and optical technology.

Despite numerous problems with portability, it is evident that researchers, in anticipation of new technology, are meeting many design challenges. In the next section, we will meet some of these. The above limitations are purely technical and they can be brushed off, perhaps, by waiting for advances in technology. However, there are other dimensions of the task lacking.

These are presented as challenges to developers because their unravelling will come through inspired innovation and cooperative design efforts as opposed to breakthroughs in semiconductor physics, materials science, or algorithms for data compression or pattern recognition. A whole genre of problems lies in the differences between the look and feel of an electronic document and the look and feel of a paper document.

Storage capabilities, access times, and encoding methods are technological problems; closure proximity cues, linking, and presentation are design and implementation problems. Inherent in print media is the feeling of what is near or far, what is important or unimportant, and the sense of completion. Pages are flipped from beginning to end on impulse, just to get the feel of the document.

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The content is scanned in an instant. Oren calls this "serendipity"--the ability to browse and explore a document quickly using a single keystroke or mouse click. The time costs must be low. A delay of several seconds will suppress the whimsical browsing of side issues. Closure is the feeling acquired when finishing a book, a chapter in a book, or any level of the presentation. The system should provide simple statistics, perhaps graphically, or what has been covered and what remains. Is a particular item in a subsection or sub-subsection? What is its hierarchical status in the overall organization of the document?

How easy is it to review an item examined earlier? Disorientation is a major and oft-cited problem when browsing in large databases e. Representing topical proximity is a challenge that must be met. Another detail is the efficiency of presentation. Designers of paper-based products take liberties, exercise generosity, and generally waste much of the information potential of a page. This is necessary though.

Consistent and spacious layouts elicit order and structure and facilitate the assimilation of content. The information theorist's term for this is "redundancy"--a measure of the inherent order in a system. Thus, we need not read every word in a message: we ingest words in phrases or chunks and quickly proceed.

If random sequences of words were as probable as highly structured word sequences, there would be zero redundancy.


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Such a language would quickly fatigue readers because each word would need to be considered in isolation from surrounding words. A message of random words would be indistinguishable from an intended message. Redundancy is desirable and arguably vital.

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In the language of information theorists, redundancy combats noise. Redundancy exists in a graphic sense as well. Presentations with high information utilization that is, low redundancy offer too much--the delivery is too busy.

Often a design goal is to exploit the technical possibilities of the medium. As a result, the layout becomes dense, the subtlety is lost, the message obscured. For example, novice publishers, armed with sophisticated word processors, page layout software, and laser printers, are often guilty of producing output that is fancy and cluttered--all the possibilities are explored and used.

This is also common for presentations on a CRT display. With too low a resolution to waste on spacious layout showing structure and order, information is often packed in at the expense of aesthetic quality. Herein lies a major challenge for designers: to assemble and manipulate the presentation addressing structure and order rather than pushing the information potential of the technology. With the added dimensions of audio and motion video albeit, primitive at present , CD-ROM has the potential to surpass paper documents, but the presentation must be addressed with care.

The presence of vast stores of information on high-performance machines does not guarantee the demise of the status quo. Of paramount importance is the ability to amplify or filter unembellished information. Hypertext systems promise to amplify through their capability to order and reorder items even though the underlying structure is nonlinear. Books, with hard-wired structure, offer little here. Several levels of sophistication can be identified Byers, The lowest is basic text management, which is similar to querying systems in traditional databases.

The next level--the starting point for hypertext systems--provides static access to textual or graphic information through links built in to the database by the developers.

Possibilities are plentiful, but they are limited and cannot be implemented of the user or systems integrator. Most hypertext systems retain a history of the user's path and allow back-tracking or review of past activities. The history is volatile, however, and is not retained for subsequent explorations.

In a study comparing equivalent hypertext and paper-based documents, Egan et a. Dynamic linking, the most sophisticated method of access, allows the user to add links. Natural and obvious links exists as cited above, but users can forge new ones while browsing through the database investigating a topic.

The links are stored for subsequent investigations on the same topic. In a truly dynamic hypertext system, a user can add entire documents to the system. This requires a document-capture facility and a writable and portable storage medium, such as write-once read-many WORM optical discs Rash, In the long run, the ability to filter or exclude information is as important as having access. Global connectivity and massive storage systems promise to drown us in information.

What secretaries and consultants presently do for executive's daily planning and decision making i. Information filtering need not preoccupy a human being, though. Content inquiry could benefit from user profiles. An inquiry into the physics of elasticity, for example, should return different information for a primary school student than for older students.

Profile-guided searches could encompass numerous other student traits, such as histories of previous courses taken or personal interest. The above discussion has employed the word "user" in a broad sense. Bush called them "trail blazers":. For this discussion, users or trail blazers are courseware developers, educational consultants, teachers, or students.

The success of dynamic hypertext systems depends on the extent to which designers can demystify the database and put customizing in the hands of end users. The further down the hierarchy--developers, consultants, teachers, students--this power can be passed, the better. A dynamic hypertext system that a teacher could easily tailor for a unique classroom setting would be a powerful tool.

If a student can customize it, so much the better. The challenge for designers, then, is to provide a simple interface with powerful tools that allows a teacher or student to design. Links and documents could be added by a teacher and offered to students for their own exploration of a subject. Or, a teacher could assign to students a project to create their own concept of a subject by linking and adding as they see fit.

The user interface offered by Apple's HyperCard, for example, is demonstrably easy to use MacKenzie, , even for children Nicol, in press.

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However, when the underlying database is extremely large the potential for disorientation and cognitive overload explodes Heller, User-initiated design can spell chaos unless some major issues in the design of hypertext systems can be addressed. A recent review of five WORM optical disc drives from three manufacturers pointed out that the discs for each manufacturer's drive are not interchangeable Rash, This is an ominous situation.

Indeed, lack of standardization and incompatibility are chronic problems of computer and communications systems and the situation is not likely to change. The term "standard" is sometimes taken as an industry joke: "There's no shortage of standards: Everybody has one" Rowan, , p.

On a Silver Platter CD ROMs and the Promises of a New Technology

With the recent drive toward global connectivity, the need for compatibility between and within generations of software and hardware has never been more important. However, standards in themselves are not the solution. Often there is a subtle push and shove as industry moguls promise standardization as a selling feature while delivering uniqueness in order to gain control and limit third-party access.

At issue is cooperation, and its role in the political and economic climate within and between nations. Japan, with one-tenth the number of lawyers per capita as Canada or the United States, is an industry leader in cooperation at least within its borders.