Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Standard That Time Forgot

Today, we take full-motion video and digitized audio on a variety of devices for granted, even on the Web.  But the transition to this level of capability on home computers was one of fits and starts.  Early CD-ROM drives were designed to read large quantities of data, like encyclopedias and mailing lists, and not necessarily for video playback; many could sustain only short bursts of full (single) speed reading, and access time to read a different section of the disc was often abysmal.  Raw CD Redbook audio was the only reliable standard, with the Soundblaster, AdLib Gold, Pro Audio Spectrum and other varied and incompatible sound cards competing for marketshare.

So an organization called the Multimedia PC Marketing Council was formed by the industry, and the official "MPC" label was introduced to help consumers identify machines and upgrade kits which met the defined specifications.  There was even a magazine dedicated to promoting the MPC standard:

If the cover seems like a parody of a computer magazine, you're not far off.  It's a bit odd, thin and generic in terms of content, and even advertisers seemed unsure about what they should be advertising; gaming was already driving PC improvements on the "multimedia" front, so most of what we see are ads for educational and reference titles taking advantage of the newfangled CD-ROM medium.  Most of the articles have a vaguely optimistic "The Future Is Now!" tone about all the great things that would happen now that we could access a whopping 650 MB of text, video and sound on our PCs, but they don't really say much about specifics; it wasn't clear at the time that the Internet was still the missing ingredient that would make PCs truly useful for most people.

The MPC label itself failed to catch on, primarily because the industry matured faster than anyone anticipated and these kinds of features became must-haves around the time The 7th Guest came out.  With the arrival of Windows 3.1, device drivers at the DOS level became less of an issue -- games could just rely on the operating system to provide the necessary services via a standard API.  And the MPC standard didn't really go far enough -- it said nothing about video resolution or color-depth, focusing only on minimal CD-ROM drive and sound specifications:

* CD-ROM drive capable of a sustained transfer rate of 150k per second (1x!)

* Maximum CD-ROM seek time of 1 second (no Dragon's Lair please!)

* Digitized audio support at an 11 Khz sample rate, 8-bit resolution for recording, 22 Khz, 8-bit for output (below CD standard, 44.1 KHz, 16-bit)

* Audio mixing capabilities to blend digital audio, MIDI music and CD-audio (using an external mixer if necessary)

Fortunately, most of this has been sorted out now; PCs are able to accommodate a range of devices, even in the graphics card arena where technical variation is still substantial.  MPC World magazine eventually morphed into Multimedia World magazine before disappearing entirely; even for an old gamer like me, this one fails to inspire the warm glow of nostalgia.

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