By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 1998, The Syracuse Newspapers
I waltzed into a new era last week without realizing it.
I was trying out the new Deluxe CD player included in the $35 suite of add-on programs for Windows 98 called Microsoft Plus! 98. The future began when I slipped a new audio CD into my PC's CD tray and closed the drawer.
In a second or two the CD started playing, and I watched in surprise as an informational display on the front of the player lit up with the name of the recording. It also told me who was performing and gave me an option to find out more about the CD.
This wasn't some kind of trickery. The CD I was playing had never been played before. But the Deluxe Player knew what the name of the CD was and who was performing on it.
If you're used to advanced CD players for personal computers, this may not seem unusual. CD players that pick up information on the artist and title for each CD they play are starting to catch on. If your PC is online, these CD players reach out to an Internet database and download the data in the background, while the CD is cueing up.
But all of the CD players I'd tried that do that have two failings. They ask you to set up the method they use to access the Internet and they can't store many album titles without running out of room in the tiny file they use on your PC.
The new Microsoft CD player does everything right. You don't need to do anything. It doesn't even ask you for permission to send its little beeps and tweets out across the Internet. (Why should it? You're the one who put the CD in the drive. So it assumes you'd like to see some basic information about the CD.)
If your PC isn't connected, the Deluxe Player is smart enough to skip the reach-out-and-and-touch-someone part. And it's even smarter than that. If you play five CDs on a rainy Saturday afternoon when you're not connected to the Internet, the Deluxe Player remembers the ID codes of those CDs and picks up the information for them the next time you're online.
And, of course, the player stores all this information on your hard drive so it doesn't have to go get it off the Internet each time you play the same CDs.
A good idea, right? It gets even better.
Other Internet-enabled CD players, such as Notify CD, which I reported on a few months back, store this information in CDPLAYER.INI, a small file in the Windows folder of your hard drive. When this file fills up, you're out of luck. At most, this file will store info on about 100 CDs.
The Deluxe Player is much cleverer. It creates a real database with no practical size limit. And it's a searchable database that can be opened and edited in Microsoft Access, the modern and easy-to-use database program that is included in Microsoft's Office 97 Pro. (If you have the Deluxe player and want to open the database, look for DELUXECD.MDB in the Windows folder. If you have Access, just double-click on that file and Access will display it.)
Is this a big thing? You might not think so—yet. Let me tell you why this seemingly little advance is so important.
Most of us already know how valuable the Internet is for e-mail and Web browsing. Both of those functions are relatively primitive, and both require a lot of interaction. The simple little CD player in the Plus! 98 suite shows the real direction we'll be heading in the next decade.
At last, the implicit promise of the Internet—that it will provide new ways of distributing knowledge and information, without any extra effort on our part—is starting to come true. This is a small beginning. It's also an easy beginning. Microsoft didn't have to reinvent the wheel. It already had the Internet technology and the database software.
But imagine what can be done with a little extra effort a few years from now when your PC is online all the time, the way mine is now using a cable Internet connection. The smoke detectors in your home have little sensors that send information to your PC. If the smoke detectors are triggered by smoke or fire, a program that runs in the background sends an instant message for help to the fire department.
Or imagine how simple it would be, in technological terms, for your PC to grab the latest TV channel guides automatically. You install Plus! for Windows 2000 and the channel guides are part of the package. You don't have to do anything. Or suppose your PC starts acting up. Something's causing an error each time you boot up. Wouldn't you like to know that it could repair itself by automatically locating the file it's missing from a tech center on the Internet?
I know, this sounds like Big Brother. More to the point, it smacks of Big Brother Bill, as in Bill Gates, the world's richest man, the guy who made Windows what it is. I worry about that. Other companies need to step in and give Microsoft some competition.
But whether they do or not, your world is changing, a little at a time. Each time you slip that Rod Stewart CD into the player, you're taking one more step toward the day when the Internet will grow up.