The acronym stands for Compact Disc-Read Only Memory. A CD-ROM is a disc which contains data a computer can read. You can’t put it into your computer and add information to it. Just read it.
In the 1990s, CD-ROMs were the next big thing.
There were problems with the original format of the weighty printed information materials we’d all been using for centuries. For a start, an encyclopaedia was organised into random alphabetical chunks. If you dropped one of those chunks on your toe, your toe might very well break. A CD was a fraction of the size, the weight… and the price.
The obvious thing we needed to do was to turn all the huge printed reference works of the world into this wondrous new digital format. You didn’t need to put your fancy interactive publication together with just boring old words, either. You could have photos, illustrations, videos, timelines, music and maps!
The possibilities were (almost) limitless because CD-ROMs had a storage capacity of 650 to 700 MB. That was around the same as 450 floppy disks or more than 250,000 pages of typed A4.
Everyone wanted in on this marvellous new medium. One of the first commercial CD-ROM titles was Grolier’s text-only Academic American Encyclopedia in 1985.
It got pictures in 1990 and video and audio in 1992. Multimedia living at its finest!
Microsoft launched Encarta in 1993 for $395.
The Britannica CD came out in 1994.
It priced its CD-ROM at $995.
Then, all of a sudden, the CD-ROM as a way of packaging information for the public was over.
The demise of the CD-ROM came about because of changes in the way people look for information. What’s the first thing you do when you want to look something up? Do you reach for the CD-ROM on your shelf that might have been written decades ago? Or do you reach for a search engine?
The Encarta mine of information was discontinued in 2009; both its CDs and its web service.
Just as Encarta itself had put paid to the printed works it replaced, Encarta vanished because it just couldn’t compete with Wikipedia: a free, collaborative project where armies of volunteer editors quickly update the entries. (Not always reliably, of course, according to Wikipedia itself.)
When it closed, Encarta had about 62,000 articles, most behind a paywall. By the time Encarta’s last page closed, in December 2009, the English Wikipedia had over 3 million articles.
CD-ROMs changed everything. And then they were gone.
You can still buy the last edition of Britannica. It may be a tad pricey at a couple of grand as compared to free but, hey, your arm muscles will get a good workout whenever you need to look up the capital of Kyrgyzstan.
Many of those CD-ROMs are still, amazingly, available to buy. Just check your computer still has a CD drive first?
(At least you don’t have to do that if you buy a print Britannica. That’s available 24/7, even when the electricity goes down and we’re all eating berries. At least we’ll have the book to guide us on the poisonous ones.)