FCW history book: CD-ROMs circa 1987

Federal Computer Week published an article titled “CD-ROM takes off” in the March 23, 1987, issue, which reminds us that at one time, CD-ROM technology was so novel that user groups formed to help people start developing CD-ROM applications. The article’s author was Anne Armstrong, then features editor of FCW. She is now FCW’s publisher.

Here is an excerpt from her article.

Recently, a growing number of agencies, looking for new solutions to the information deluge, are experimenting with an emerging optical storage format called compact disk/read-only memory.

What makes the technology so appealing to users and product developers alike is the quantity and type of storage that can be obtained at such low cost. A single compact disk stores 550M — roughly the same amount as 1,500 floppies and more data than can be sent by a 1,200 bits/sec modem running 24 hours a day for six weeks.

CD-ROM drives, or readers, range in price from $500 to $1,500. In OEM quantities, the prices are dropping and are expected to fall to less than $300 to the distributor as volume increases.

One indication of the level of interest in CD-ROM within the government is the special interest group on CD-ROM applications and technology, SIG-CAT. Formed a year ago to exchange information about CD-ROM applications in the federal government, the group has now grown to more than 850 members from more than 100 different agencies and the private sector.

“I’ve always believed that government was the biggest potential user of CD-ROM technology because of the extremely large data bases we sit on top of and now distribute in an expensive and archaic form,” said Jerry McFaul, a computer scientist at the U.S. Geological Survey and the organizer of SIG-CAT.

“Up until now, using much of the data generated by an agency such as USGS has required a large computer and a nine-track tape drive. CD-ROM offers the possibility of whole new markets for people who needed our data but couldn’t afford the equipment required to process it.”

We recently caught up with McFaul, still a computer scientist at the USGS, who provided a quick update on SIG-CAT. “We had our last conference in June 1998,” he said. “After that, we merged SIG-CAT into the DVD Association, which is still going strong.”

We asked McFaul if USGS has migrated most of its data from CD-ROM media onto newer media. In no way, he said. USGS still uses CD-ROM extensively — and some DVD — for its scientific publications.

“The ability to provide not only the interpretative scientific report but also the digital data behind the report is still a very big advantage of this medium,” he said.


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