Whatever Happened to Compact Disk Interactive?
by John C. Dvorak

It was something of a curiosity. Called CD-i or compact disk interactive, it was designed to be the biggest thing in the 1990′s and something that might eliminate the PC altogether. Who needed a computer when you could have this thing hooked to a regular TV set. In 1987 during the second CD-ROM conference sponsored by Microsoft when Microsoft was first a public company all of a sudden Philips announced this device. It was rather curious and I was actually chatting with Bill Gates at the time who was somewhat annoyed by the fact that this device was announced without his knowing anything at all about it being developing. I always sensed that keeping Gates out of the loop, even back then, was not a good concept. I was right.

The first specification for CDi said it would run on the Motorola 68000 family (68070) and utilize OS-9, one of the early real-time operating systems. The announcement was more of a salvo than anything solid. The idea was to create a disk format that could hold a combination of video, text, voice and still pictures. CD-ROM eventually did all this too killing any hopes for CDi. Worse, years would pass before anything actually shipped. It utilized what has become the “green book” standard. (Each CD standard is based on some colored book as a reference to the specifications).

In 1987 there were a few media mentions of the CDi standard but nobody got worked up about it. More interesting, at least at the CD-ROM conference, was the handy Microsoft Bookshelf product. It was first announced back then along with a curious product from General Electric/RCA called the Digital Video Interactive (DVI) system which put full motion video on the PC. DVI was quite the rage having come out of the Sarnoff labs. There was a huge buzz around this technology. You could tell at the time that CDi was going nowhere.

By November of 1988 Sony was now in the picture with Philips. Both companies released the official standard for this CDi technology. It would have 650 megabyte capacity with all sorts of odd features. For example there were four audio modes: digital audio, hi-fi, standard and speech. Apparently speech mode would record days worth of chatter. Both NTSC and PAL video was supported. During this same time period Intel bought the hyped DVI technology from GE and said it would compete with CDi.

By May of 1989 the buzz for CDi began to increase as Sony, Matsushita and Philips said they would begin to promote and market the devices. CDi, it was said, will surpass the capabilities of CD-ROM and leave it in the dust. Quoted in an old Newsbytes report, Gordon Stulberg, then chairman of American Interactive Media, claimed that the “technology will be the hottest thing in consumer electronics in the 1990s.”

In late 1990 Sony rolled out a portable prototype CDi device which has a small color 4-inch LCD monitor built-in. It was kind of interesting but the world was passing this product by as years have now passed since the CDi was first announced. In fact this product may be one of the first casualties of the shortening of product development cycles that began to emerge in the 1990′s.

It wasn’t until October of 1991 that the thing finally hit the store shelves. By then it was too late. The buzz, what little there was left, had evaporated. The devices were large and clunky and carried by outlets such as Sears and Radio Shack. The public was confused by the software since it looked like a CD-ROM (which was now entrenched) but wasn’t a CD-ROM. It virtually died right on the spot. The $800 price point didn’t help! Also the picture was muddy and the responsiveness was mediocre. It had nothing going for it.

In Japan the “usual suspects” had all jumped on the CDi bandwagon to get burned. Sony, Yamaha, Kyocera and others had all brought out a version of the system. All are now collectors items.

Many of the titles were repurposed CD-ROM titles making the rationale for the system even weaker.

Like any new technology though all sorts of people afraid that they would miss the “next big thing” were building support for the system. Hardware for the make was even invented so it could emulate a development system for CDi.

Ironically that same month another division of Philips brought out a line of computers utilizing CD-ROM and promoted as multimedia machines. No CDi units were available for this machine.

The CDi system never completely died off. Today there is a small contingent which trades games and some new CDi titles still appear. The CDi players are continue to be manufactured by various companies many as stand-alone LCD players. The recent popularity of Video CD’s has helped since the CDi can play a VCD. IN fact if you bought a CDi player today you’d discover that it can play the following disks: CD-i, CD-i Digital Video, CD-DA, CD+Graphics, Photo CD, and Video CD. The memory and processors have been improved too. In todays market I’m sure that a newcomer would find a CDi interesting and probably think it was some new idea. One thing for sure, its timing in the market could not have been worse.

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