CD Pioneers

Part of a series of biographical sketches of people whomade the CD industry happen

by Katherine Cochrane

Allen Adkins

Maybe it's the sign of an industry's maturity when people have time to look around one day and realize they've done something pretty cool, and it's been kind of historic. If that's true, then the Compact Disc industry, or at least the CD-ROM and CD-Recordable part of it (which is where I came in_I'm not sure how it was before that), has been mature for quite some time. Maybe precocious is a better word.

An illustration of how self-conscious this group of trail-blazers has been is that one of the earliest books written about optical publishing was printed long before CD-ROM was a household word. Chris Andrews' Education of a CD-ROM Publisher was completed in March of 1993. The initial chapter, which explains how he was sucked into this then-esoteric field, describes his first encounter with Allen Adkins, founder of Optical Media International, and developer of the first microcomputer-based premastering system.

When I was introduced to Allen in the Fall of 1992, Optical Media (OMI) was more than a lone visionary in a converted classroom in Mountain View that Andrews wrote about. It was at CD-ROM Expo '92 in Boston, the East Coast's CD publishing industry trade show of that era. (InterMedia was the Western equivalent. I almost said "analog" but that would be a pretty silly way to describe a digital industry event). A few months earlier, in July, I had committed myself to opening the first U.S. licensee of The One-Off CD Shop "chain" (although it wasn't a chain then_just a few proto-links that hadn't been forged yet). How I got into that is another story, but the pertinent facts are that this was the first tradeshow where I worked in a vendor's booth, and the founder of the One-Off CD Shops, Neil Enock, had persuaded his friend Allen Adkins to let us share OMI's prime location in the show's exhibit hall.

Newbie that I was, I didn't really grasp then what a plum had been handed me, but I had a great time anyway. Ken Pomper, who was OMI's Marketing Manager, and Eric Haya, a sales rep, gave me a lot of excellent on-the-job training that week, once they decided we weren't trying to steal all their business. Our nascent chain used and sold only OMI's Quick TOPiX premastering software at that point, and I had been carefully coached by Neil and his marketing guy, Glenn Sanderse, and the Shop's first engineer, Derek Datta, about the program's quality and finer points. It was all theory to me then, though_except for pushing the "record" button during our first training class in Calgary a few weeks earlier, I had still not burned my first disc. Of course that changed, and over the next three or four years I used OMI's software extensively in my service bureau. I still like it.

It was not until much later that it dawned on me just who Allen was and what he'd accomplished. That Mountain View, CA classroom had been the nursery for what has developed from a "zero billion dollar industry" into the fastest growing technology in history. When I saw Allen in Calgary in the fall of 1993, during the One-Off CD Shops' first annual "Jamboree" dealer's conference, I asked him what he thought of the industry he had started. He said, "Oh, I didn't start this!" I questioned, didn't he put together the first system, and write the first software? "Well, yes..." It seemed to me that was pretty much what got things going. The truth is, Allen had spent years nurturing his ideas, brooding over the code, tweaking hardware, and trying to convince people in the CD manufacturing business that making discs one at a time on the desktop was something that could and should be done. By late 1992 it was becoming evident to at least a few people that he was right. Several companies had imported desktop CD recording drives into the US earlier that year (from Japan), although probably fewer than 1000 were sold before CD-ROM Expo in October. But many of the attendees I talked with at that show still hadn't even heard of the technology, much less believed in it yet.

Sometimes showing people can do more than all the persuasive talk in the world. In 1987, at a conference and tradeshow called Optica 87 in Amsterdam, Allen Adkins and Karl Kitze of Sonopress collaborated on a very convincing demonstration of what desktop premastering could mean. Allen used his software to make a premaster with a desktop computer (recording it on tape since there weren't any disc recorders or CD-R media yet) during the first day of the show. Then he and Karl raced across Holland and Germany to the Sonopress factory. (Karl told me Allen drove, so if they were arrested Karl wouldn't lose his driver's license. If a German citizen was worried about speeding on the autobahn, I hate to think how fast they were driving). The tape was slapped into the waiting reader, and a glass master cut from the data. The stamper was formed, and a run of discs pressed and labeled with the previously-designed silkscreen, then Karl and Allen sped back to Amsterdam to distribute the discs less than 24 hours after the premaster was encoded. The caption on the label calls it, the "First Official European CD-ROM Premastering Demonstration of TOPIX CD-ROM PREMASTER/ENCODING SYSTEM." CD-ROM was so new then that they also included a warning not to attempt using the first (data) track in an audio player. Remember, this was a year before the ISO 9660 standard for CD-ROM was adopted. Oh by the way, it is a mixed mode (CD-ROM data plus RedBook audio) formatted disc, with 28.4 MB of clipart, public domain utilties, video files, fonts and other data in a Macintosh HFS partition on track 1, followed by six audio tracks. (Karl gave me one of them recently). Image of CD-ROM

You might think this was not a very exciting demo. You would be wrong. At that time, and for years afterwards, most CDs were premastered painstakingly by hand, so to speak, by "bit twiddling" or encoding the data using very clunky low-level code on large systems like a VAX or Control Data PDP-12 or IBM mainframe. A 24-hour turn is still not common for pressed discs. Microcomputers were reasonably new, and not at all powerful. Allen's TOPIX software worked on a 16 MHz IBM AT, when MS-DOS was young. It's just as well that no CD-R drives or media were available yet, because there would have been no way to sustain adequate throughput to avoid buffer underruns then. Today some people still worry that a 120 MHz Pentium might not be fast enough! (It is.)

A lot of things have happened since 1987. Allen sold OMI in 1994 to MicroTest (which was later acquired by Fluke Networks in 2001) and is semi-retired now, enjoying travel and life in general. Ken Pomper is marketing manager for Padus Software USA, a new CD-R software company started by one of OMI's ex-programmers, Mirco Camori. Not just CD-ROM, but CD-R is a household word now (in my house, anyway). Karl Kitze bought the first CD-R software for Sonopress from OMI for US$250,000 plus $100,000 for the recorder. The system I started with, and still have, a Philips CDD-521, retailed in 1992 for $6,000 plus $2,500 for QuickTOPiX. Some CD-Recorders now (in mid-1997) sell for less than $500, software included. Instead of "One-what?" the term one-off CD has become generic for a unique recorded compact disc, but even that term is losing ground with the advent of "CD-R duplication"_recording up to 100 or 200 discs with towers of multiple drives and autoloaders. The One-Off CD Shop changed hands, and Neil and I are no longer with them. Glenn Sanderse has his own company now, CD Data, Inc., in Calgary. Karl Kitze is still with Sonopress, as Director of Technical Business Development for their US operations in North Carolina. QuickTOPiX has been dropped as an independent product by its new owners, although they have integrated the code into their network systems. History was made. Cool.

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