Multimedia Personal Computing: The Microsoft View

May 1991

Multimedia Computing:  The Context

Computing changed dramatically in the 1980s.  The emergence of the personal computer desktop and the coalescence of an industry around a binary standard has spawned the existence of an incredible 60 million personal computers worldwide.  In the 1980s computer technology became widely available and accessible for everyday tasks.

The overwhelming impact of personal computers has been in business, centered around a core set of common business functions.  The computers on the vast majority of today's desktops are used to run general productivity tools such as word processors, databases and spreadsheets, or more specialized tools for applications such as CAD or desktop publishing.  For the most part, personal computing in the 1980s emerged as applications-driven; that is, a user organized a computer around what it (the computer and software tool) was doing (e.g., crunching numbers or sorting through a database), instead of around the user's ultimate goal, such as creating an annual report or sales presentation.  The focus of the 1980s on smaller, faster computers and more advanced applications with more features had many positive benefits for users.  To enhance users' productivity, the challenge of the 1990s will be to make computers more personal and more integrated with the way people work:  the indispensable tools that people reach for when they want to be educated, informed or entertained. 

This view was outlined by Microsoft Chairman and CEO Bill Gates in a recent address to the personal computer industry. The vision embodied by Information at your fingertips™ implies a shift in thinking about technology toward how individuals work, learn and think.  Multimedia makes an important contribution in both the short- and long-term realization of this vision.

This paper outlines the role multimedia will play in Microsoft's broader vision of a more interactive, more personal type of personal computing experience and Microsoft's specific commitments to moving multimedia into the mainstream.

What is Multimedia?

To the industry infrastructure, multimedia is a much-touted but little understood word.  It has been described as an industry or as a market.  It is associated with certain types of applications, some at the very high end of computing.  To Microsoft, the term "multimedia" implies simply a set of capabilities, including digital sound, animation and pictures, that can be integrated with text and graphics to create a more impactful and engaging computing experience.  Multimedia is not a market, but multimedia computing will enrich and impact virtually every market segment.  Multimedia makes possible a new kind of personal computing, but it does not make today's personal computers obsolete.  Microsoft believes that the building blocks for multimedia computing are already in place.  These technology building blocks are available, stable and proven.  And although multimedia plays a part in a future vision of personal computing, multimedia is not futuristic or unreachable.

Microsoft's vision for multimedia computing involves the integration of multimedia technologies into mainstream personal computing, even into millions of personal computers already in the installed base.  A multimedia-equipped personal computer is still a personal computer.  It can do the same things today's traditional personal computers can do.  But because it adds the possibilities of sound, animation and high-quality graphics, it provides richer building blocks for new, more compelling, more engaging ways to use computers.  Let's take a look.

Evolution and Revolution

We've established a framework for how people use personal computers today.  They use them essentially to run tools that take the data provided by the user, whether numbers, lists or documents, and process it in certain ways.  One way that multimedia computing will impact computing is evolutionary.  To start with, it will make the applications we use today more capable of manipulating information in an exceptionally broad range of media.  An even more profound implication of multimedia is the emergence of interactive, information-based multimedia "titles."  These titles will allow people to use computers in ways never before possible.

Evolution:  Enriching Traditional Productivity Tools

We live in a multimedia world, a world of sound and visual images, in addition to one-dimensional text.  But today's PCs can accept data only in text or graphic form. One of the immediate benefits of multimedia technology is that some of the data forms that communicate most powerfully, such as voice and images, can be captured and made usable by the computer in their native form.  Even in its most straightforward evolution, the integration of multimedia with present-day text and graphics applications can make them more useful and engaging.

Let's look at examples of how today's typical applications could be made more interesting and useful with multimedia.  Today electronic mail, or e-mail, is a key form of internal communications for many businesses.  But e-mail can be made much more versatile if it can be integrated with voice-mail from a telephone.  Many companies create their slide presentations on computers.  But today's desktop presentation packages could be more attention-getting and entertaining if a button on the corner of the slide could launch an animation or video, complete with sound effects.

Finally, many businesses use computers to develop their own training or orientation programs for employees.  Imagine if an employee orientation could include not only text and graphics, but a button that would launch a portion of a speech from the company president.  A section on the history of the company could incorporate old photographs, accompanied by music of the time, old radio ads and so forth.  Simply by clicking on a visual icon, the employee could ask for more levels of detail about a certain division of the company, or a key executive or product.

In Microsoft's applications division, one area of multimedia applications development is in the Entry Business Unit.  A major charter of this group is to provide software that empowers first-time computer users.  Multimedia adds tremendously to computer-based training:  the use of human voices, music and animation makes computers more engaging for the technology shy.  The Entry Business Unit is enhancing several of its applications with multimedia components to make them easier and more satisfying to learn and use.  The experience and expertise gained by this group in multimedia productivity enhancements will help guide the efforts of other development groups in the applications division.

Longer term, Microsoft views the evolution of applications as more complete, involving a profound restructuring of the way people access and make use of the information available to them.  PC systems will evolve to the point that the user is not necessarily aware that different "applications" are being invoked to produce a document.  A compound document will incorporate objects that may well be "displayed" via sound or video.  Multimedia is a key enabling technology that will evolve personal computing to the vision embodied by Information at your fingertips.

Revolution:  New Types of Information-Based Titles

As we have seen, multimedia has an important, evolutionary role to play in enhancing today's productivity applications and in helping them evolve in an important new way.  While this change is profound, it is an evolutionary change.

But multimedia will also make possible new types of information-rich applications that imply a completely new way of using personal computers.  These products will differ dramatically from the PC applications we use in the office today.  Today's software applications are tools that help the user manipulate the content that he or she has supplied.  The new class of multimedia software products will be "content" applications, containing vast quantities of information.  They will be delivered on CD-ROM discs that can hold as much as 600 megabytes of applications -- nearly 100 Bibles worth!  And these applications will not simply be references or text databases.  They will use sound, motion and rich photographic-quality images to enrich the content.  They will be interactive, with links to connect relevant information.  These links will allow the user to "navigate" through the content -- by pushing control buttons such as those on a VCR to go forward, backward, to stop, and so on -- exploring and probing as interest or need dictates.  The goal of these applications will be to educate, inform and entertain, letting the natural curiosity of the user be the guide.  Because they are often produced from existing content and are "published" on CD-ROM disc, these applications are often referred to as "titles," to differentiate them from the productivity software applications that are generally associated with traditional personal computers.

While there are tremendous possibilities for multimedia-based titles in business and industry, these titles may have their most far-reaching impact in the home and schools.  They expand the concept of a personal computer from a business productivity tool into a home and educational appliance as well.  Microsoft believes that information-based multimedia titles could be a bigger business in 10 years than tools, a category which has been the core business of the PC industry in the last 10 years.

The vast potential of information-intensive titles has attracted the interest of content owners and publishers, as well as traditional software vendors.  The formation of a broad, well-supported community of multimedia developers is necessary to help ensure the development of enough world class titles to entice customers to buy multimedia systems.  The Microsoft Multimedia Systems Group actively supports third-party multimedia title development through developer programs discussed later in this document. 

The Microsoft Multimedia Publishing Group  will be one of the many multimedia titles developers in this community.    The group recently announced the first of its  titles for the office, school and home -- Multimedia Beethoven: The Ninth Symphony and Microsoft® Bookshelf® for Windows™.  The first is an educational entertainment software title on Ludwig van Beethoven and his Ninth Symphony.  The second is an engaging core reference set that uses sound and animation to enhance the enjoyment and value of everyday reference materials. 

The publishing group also has two licensing agreements.  An agreement with The Voyager Company allows Microsoft to offer versions of Voyager's titles for Microsoft® Windows™. graphical environment with Multimedia Extensions 1.0 (also known as Windows with Multimedia).  An agreement with Dorling Kindersley, Ltd., a London-based book publisher and international packager, provides Microsoft the right to license content from Dorling Kindersley books for use in future Microsoft multimedia software titles.  Microsoft has purchased a 26 percent strategic share in Dorling Kindersley.

Information-intensive multimedia titles will impact the user as no printed book can.  They blur the lines between education and entertainment, expanding the possibilities of both.  Multimedia can make educational software more entertaining and entertainment software more interesting and expansive.  But to make multimedia viable in the market, there should be coalescence around common specifications.  Building support for multimedia systems software and hardware specifications is the mission of the Multimedia Systems Group at Microsoft.

The Building Blocks


The Multimedia PC hardware specification was developed by Microsoft in consultation with a group of personal computer manufacturers.  Multimedia PCs start with today's basic personal computer technology and add the special components needed to offer the multimedia experience.

The minimum Multimedia PC hardware configuration includes a personal computer with a fast (10 MHz or greater) 80286 or 80386 processor; 2 MB of RAM; standard or enhanced VGA graphics; a digital audio subsystem; a 30MB hard disk; and a CD-ROM drive.  Each system will include Windows with Multimedia systems software or equivalent application programming interfaces preinstalled. Several personal computer vendors have committed to delivering integrated systems meeting or exceeding this configuration, and are expected to begin announcing Multimedia PCs in the second quarter of 1991, with the first shipments beginning in the third quarter of 1991.  In addition, a number of companies will deliver "upgrade kits" that allow owners to convert their personal computers to Multimedia PCs.  The upgrade kits will include at least an audio subsystem, a CD-ROM drive, and Windows with Multimedia or equivalent systems software.  They will be designed to allow customers to upgrade personal computers that meet the minimum processor, graphics and RAM requirements in the Multimedia PC specification outlined above.  Microsoft estimates that more than 15 million personal computers in the market today are multimedia-upgrade ready.

Because the Multimedia PC's roots are in traditional personal computers, consumers have the benefit of being able to do with them everything they can already do with a PC -- plus take advantage of the new possibilities that only multimedia can deliver.  Multimedia PCs will run any MS-DOS® operating system or Microsoft Windows-based productivity application on the market, as well as titles and applications specially developed for Multimedia PCs.  Microsoft believes that allowing today's computer users to leverage their investment in applications and knowledge will ease the transition of Multimedia PCs into the marketplace.

Microsoft expects that the Multimedia PC will define a range of personal computers.   The low end of the range represents the minimum configuration that can deliver acceptable functionality and performance, while still priced reasonably for home and educational use.  The high end of the range represents an extended configuration that will deliver excellent functionality and performance at a higher price.  This high end configuration would likely include an 80386 processor; 4 MB of RAM; VGA+ graphics; and an 80MB hard disk, in addition to the CD-ROM and audio subsystem components. 

As technology and standards evolve, and additional capabilities such as full-motion video become viable and affordable, the hardware specification will evolve and more advanced systems will appear.  The goal is to maintain compatibility with previous generations of software.  The current specification for the base Multimedia PC is designed to be extensible to accommodate both internal and external peripheral devices.  Extensions to the system software will support such peripherals as: audio digitizers, digital full-motion video boards (such as DVI), audio tape players or recorders, CD audio players, digital audio tape players, graphics devices (such as a digitizing tablets), optical scanners, MIDI sequencers, still video players, videotape recorders or players, videodisc players, video overlay boards, CD-ROM XA, and more. 

Systems Software

The software for multimedia computing includes Microsoft Windows graphical environment with Multimedia Extensions 1.0.  The Extensions include device drivers and libraries that serve as the interface between applications and multimedia hardware.  Included in the Extensions is the Media Control Interface, designed to provide applications with the capabilities to control multimedia audio and visual peripherals.  Software developers can use the simple Media Control Interface commands to control both internal and external multimedia peripheral devices such as those listed above.  With the Media Control Interface, a base multimedia hardware configuration may be extended to include many higher end peripherals and, therefore, applications.

Announced in the fall of 1990, the Multimedia Development Kit is in beta form, and scores of developers are well into title and application development.

Microsoft Windows version 3.0 has sold nearly 4 million copies since its launch in May of 1990 -- more copies "out of the gate" than any software program in the history of personal computing.  It provides a colorful, visual way for users to interact with their computers, making it the ideal framework for multimedia applications.  And because it is rapidly becoming the preferred graphic environment for traditional, MS-DOS personal computers, the demand for Windows-based applications has soared.  End-user and industry acceptance of the Windows graphical environment makes it a natural platform for PC-based multimedia computing.

Microsoft will deliver the final systems software to hardware original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) in the form of an adaptation kit in early summer 1991.

Standards for hardware and systems software are the primary enablers for PC-based multimedia computing.  But key to market acceptance is a wide variety of compatible applications and titles for consumers to choose from.  Industry efforts for developer support are well underway.

Multimedia PC Trademark

In order to encourage widespread acceptance of multimedia personal computing, a special "MPC" trademark has been created in consultation with a range of hardware and software companies.  The trademark will appear on hardware and software products that are compatible with the Multimedia PC specification which covers all minimum hardware and systems software requirements for multimedia personal computing.

The Multimedia PC Trademark will help customers instantly recognize compatible multimedia software and hardware products.  The trademark is designed to be a symbol of plug-and-play functionality in the same way that the VHS trademark signals compatibility among video cassette players, recorders and tapes.

Developer Programs

Developer Tools and Information

Software developers are already at work developing applications that incorporate the multimedia elements.  To do this, they need tools to work with different formats and peripheral devices.  Microsoft has issued a Multimedia Development Kit, a set of systems software and development tools for creating titles and applications for Windows with Multimedia.  Now in beta form, the kit will be generally available to end users in the summer of 1991.  The kit contains content and data preparation tools, a guide that details the multimedia applications programming interfaces (APIs), as well as software development tools and extensive documentation.

The Multimedia Development Kit can be used by traditional C programmers to incorporate multimedia into already developed applications.  But it can also be used with other types of authoring tools by publishers who wish to develop their content as a multimedia title.  This development process entails taking content and "producing" a title, conceptually similar to producing a documentary out of a vast amount of information about a particular subject.

Higher-level authoring tools allow title publishers to select the text and images they wish, compose animation and sound sequences to enhance it, and establish links that allow the user to "navigate" through them by pushing control buttons such as those on a VCR to go forward, backward, stop, and so on.  Microsoft is working with vendors of high-level authoring tools to ensure that a broad array of tools is available for the differing needs of applications and title developers.


Another way the Multimedia Systems Group is supporting development is with annual multimedia developers conferences.  The first conference, held in November 1990, was attended by more than 700 developers.  Microsoft also periodically holds specialized seminars and conferences; for instance, it recently held a briefing for executives of major publishing and media companies.  The conference outlined the process of converting content (such as a series of how-to books, reference manuals, and cookbooks) into CD-ROM based multimedia titles for the Multimedia PC.

In addition, Microsoft founded the annual International Conference and Exposition on Multimedia and CD-ROM six years ago and remains the conference's sponsor.  These conferences allow leading companies in the CD-ROM and multimedia industries to show their products and technologies and discuss standards, product design and global markets.

A Computer on Every Desk  . . .  and in Every Home

This has been the mission statement of Microsoft since its founding in 1975.  Today the bulk of the 60 million personal computers in use sit on desktops.  Most of the developments in the 15 years since personal computers were invented have taken place in service of the business user.  And yet there is still an incredible opportunity to expand the scope and value of personal computers in business.  Multimedia is one technology -- along with such technologies as true object-oriented file systems, handwriting recognition and distributed networks -- that will help the industry meet the challenge of truly personal computing.

In the home and in schools, multimedia's impact will be even more profound.  The ability of multimedia to bring information to life will spawn incredible numbers of rich information-based titles.  Microsoft believes the immediate value of these titles will cause a rapid ramp-up in the market for home computers.

While multimedia plays an important part of the vision of the future Microsoft calls Information at your fingertips, multimedia on the PC is here.  Multimedia PCs, and the first information-based titles, will ship this year.  And because the Multimedia PC incorporates existing technology, multimedia can be integrated into many of today's existing personal computers.

Information technology is rapidly accumulating in offices and homes.  Personal computing has the potential to give millions of users unique abilities to make information work for them.  Enriched by multimedia and with the proliferation of information-based titles, these computers will become the indispensable tools of the information age.

(C) 1991  Microsoft Corporation.   All rights reserved.

Microsoft, the Microsoft logo, MS-DOS and Bookshelf are registered trademarks and Information at your fingertips and Windows are trademarks of Microsoft Corporation.