STANDARD PLATFORM NOT EXPECTED SOON

The many competing and noncompatible interactive multi-media formats have retailers hoping for some standardization of platforms.Some manufacturers would like to see it too, because it would help launch the embryonic business into the mass market. But the consensus from conversations with suppliers at this year's Consumer Electronics Show was don't hold your breath.Interactive multimedia refers to

The many competing and noncompatible interactive multi-media formats have retailers hoping for some standardization of platforms.

Some manufacturers would like to see it too, because it would help launch the embryonic business into the mass market. But the consensus from conversations with suppliers at this year's Consumer Electronics Show was don't hold your breath.

Interactive multimedia refers to software based on 5-inch compact discs. The programs can include text, image and audio components. The most popular programs for these machines now include entertainment, education and games -- and some combinations of all these. In the future, movies will be offered on these discs.

But there has been a proliferation of machines that play these programs, all of them incompatible. These include: Sega CD; CD-ROM (read-only memory) for DOS, Windows and Macintosh personal computers; CD-I from Philips; Jaguar from Atari and 3DO from 3DO Co.

Sony will soon come out with its own machine, and Nintendo's next game technology will be cartridge-based, bypassing CDs altogether.

So far the CD-ROM programming for personal computers has been the most popular, and many supermarket chains are testing these products. But it is very early to tell which will win out, said industry observers.

Cross-platform CDs are possible, according to industry sources, and might help grow the market. But none of the major players are willing to give ground to make it a reality.

"I would love it to happen because it could offer the potential that we might be able to write one version that could run on multiple platforms," said Stan Roach, vice president of marketing for Spectrum HoloByte, Alameda, Calif.

"That would cut our cost of development substantially. Now we have to write for each platform uniquely," he said.

Sam Goldberg, vice president of marketing at Acclaim Entertainment, Oyster Bay, N.Y., said it probably will happen and perhaps as soon as next year. "I would hope that it happens, but I can't tell you for sure. It's in everyone's best interest to do that," he said.

But the players with the biggest commitments to CD machines are content with the way the market is now progressing.

"We are less excited about that as an alternative, only because what we want in our hardware platform is [for it to be] totally dedicated as a gaming entertainment machine," said Ed Volkwein, senior vice president of marketing at Sega of America, Redwood City, Calif.

"Our platform is built for speed and excitement and delivering entertainment experiences that can only be done on a machine that [has been designed] from the very inception as a gaming machine," he said.

Electronic Arts, San Mateo, Calif., is closely aligned with the development of the 3DO technology. "One of the goals of 3DO is to provide standardization for the CD platform," said Ted Judson, manager of retail marketing.

"Whether that will include what goes into an IBM or a Macintosh computer, I'm not aware of the future of that," he said.

Sony also is developing its own stand-alone machine. "We will have our own concept and design plans, so we don't have any plans to be compatible with any other system at this time," said Jeff Fox, director of communications at Sony Electronic Publishing Co., Santa Monica, Calif.

The company also produces software for other platforms. "We will continue to produce software for any commercially viable platform. That's why we are currently producing for Nintendo and Sega," said Fox. With all the talk about the information superhighway, retailers and games manufacturers are wondering whether the future of the games business lies in personal computers, set-top boxes to be used with televisions, or both.

"The metaphor that we use is that you will see the computer in the den at home and the 3DO machine in the living room," said Judson of Electronic Arts.

"The 3DO machine will be providing entertainment, infotainment, edutainment, interactive movies, and the ability to manipulate photo CD and video CD. In the den, the PC will be used more for the productivity element of managing the household and communication aspects of managing the household," he said.

"Eventually, especially in terms of entertainment, the 3DO will surpass the computer and will be the entertainment CD platform," Judson said.

"We are destined to converge," said Sega's Volkwein. "There are already many titles that are popular on Sega that have also been in the PC formats," he said.

One thing the games business has learned from the success of computer software products is, "this is an all-family business, not necessarily a kids' business," said Volkwein. The computer software companies "seem to be bringing a much broader range of entertainment to the marketplace," he said.

"So while there are some issues, we certainly are moving toward a target out on the horizon that has a lot of similarities," said Volkwein.

"I can see both of those systems existing," said Alan Miller, chairman and chief executive officer of Accolade, Sparta, N.J.

"Our audience for IBM-compatible software is more of an adult male audience. They prefer products like sports games. The audience for the video game cartridges is mainly children and adolescents. They are two separate audiences," he said.

Overall the games and interactive software market is growing quickly, with 16-bit games continuing to post strong sales.

"You are going to see 1994 as a very, very good year for 16-bit software and hardware," said Goldberg of Acclaim. "You will see a little bit of growing support for the CD formats and new technologies," he said.

"I don't see major inroads until 1995 for hardware, and then 1996 for software. So you are looking at 1995-1996 for when that pendulum starts to swing more heavily toward the CD-based formats," said Goldberg.

"We think of the Christmas of 1995 as the watershed Christmas, while 1994 is going to be a year of platform shifting. The 16-bit cards will start going down, while some of the new 32-bit machines come on, like Jaguar and 3DO," Roach said.