phdcc: Internet and CD software PHD Computer Consultants Ltd
... Putting catalogs on CD or DVD

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phdcc eMedia publishing software tools...
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... ShellRun AutoRun CD utility

I. Summary

There are many reasons why you may want to put information on CD: to reduce environmental damage, to save costs, to offer large volumes of data or to use the speed and power of electronic searches.

These same benefits also apply to putting your catalogue on the internet, and many of the points made in this paper apply equally well to that alternative. However there are many instances where the large data capacity and portability of a CD or DVD make it the logical choice.

In actual fact the best solution will almost certainly be a consolidation of data rather than the introduction of yet another medium. In this model the database containing the source information for the catalogue can be accessed over the internet and the publication process is simply a matter of copying the website and database to CD.

II. Introduction

In this paper I briefly cover some of the issues involved in producing a CD or DVD containing a product catalogue. Many of these issues apply to other types of data CD and, indeed, other forms of electronic storage such as the internet.

Although I cannot attempt to offer a comprehensive, detailed analysis I do work systematically through some of the points that I have personally found to be important.

I have tried to be fair and balanced with my comments but my objectivity is constrained by the fact that I am involved professionally with PHDCC. I am therefore more familiar with their software solutions than some of the alternatives that I mention.

III. Appropriate Stepwise Action

It is very important to review at the outset where you are now, where you would like to get to in the end and what are the reasonable intermediate steps. The timescale should take into account difficulties likely to be encountered and time to learn from problems with the previous step.

The starting point will include such issues as:

These questions have a range of complicated answers and the possible steps that arise will have to be thought through carefully taking into account other factors mentioned in this paper. However the spectrum of possibilities includes:

IV. Basic Issues

(a) Searchablity

The most import aspect of any CD you produce (at least from the perspective of the user) is the facility to find things quickly and easily. Although in some circumstances a structured layout would be sufficient it is always good practice to have a search engine and, often, this can be made the primary access point to the CD.

The search engine you use will depend on the type of CD you opt for:

(b) Cost

With any project of this type the largest cost will be your time and you should use realistic estimates for your hourly rate including relevant overhead allocations. The total is typically more than double your wage! Use this figure when you make the original cost benefit justification as well as for decisions over which software to use or whether to outsource work.

The amount of work involved setting up the new system will depend on your starting point and which solution you are aiming at. Generally it is a good idea not to be too ambitious with the first step but a couple of thousand USD would not be out of the way to account for the in-house work involved setting up a system to publish existing material. Setting up a web shop or internet database system can be a steep (but rewarding) learning curve and you should think seriously about getting fixed price quotations from external contractors.

The right software tools can reduce the work content of the project significantly. Many are available free or "open source" such as the MySQL database and php script interpreter but these sometimes require more expertise to get working. You should spend some time searching the internet for alternatives and look at forums where people have commented or provided help. A one off cost of between zero and fifteen hundred USD will cover the majority of installations although some software operates with an annual or per CD licence fee.

CD publishing is one of the lesser costs - which is why you are looking at distributing information on CD! The unit price falls with quantity but a production run of 500 CDs might cost 3.00USD per CD for duplication, on-body 4 colour screen print, Standard jewel case, litho printed booklet and inlay. Again you should shop around for an appropriate deal.

Don't forget postage and packing

(c) Time to produce

(i) Initial one-off
The time to set up your system in the first place will depend on the factors discussed above and how much time you can allocate to this project. If you use some software with which you are unfamiliar you need to build in some learning time. It's a good idea to look at the software supplier's web site for clues about their technical query response time (such as customer comments). In some instances an email dialogue can take weeks to solve a straightforward problem!

Jobs that can often absorb large amounts of time include things like setting up data conversion processes (especially if complex formatting is required for the output at the same time). Obviously if you decide you need to review the architecture of the business management software there is, potentially, a great deal of work - see the section below.

(ii) Routine per publication
The objective should be to reduce the work that has to be done for the production of each catalogue. Ideally it should entail simply "the press of one button". However it is probably better to err on the side of simplicity at the beginning and add automation later. The critical thing is to get the data structures and processes right, run them through manually to start with, sort out any bugs, and only then convert them to programs.

(d) User friendliness

(i) Automatic starting
You must assume the absolute minimum about the eventual user of your CD. They probably will not be highly computer literate, they might not have a very modern computer, they might not be using the latest version of Windows, they might not be using Windows at all, and they might even have a poor understanding of English! At some point you will have to draw the line but you should have gone through the thought process and be clear about the justification for your decisions. You should prepare yourself for the consequences.

Ideally the CD will auto-run when it is put into the PC. If some of your users run Mac or Unix type systems then you will need to make special provisions to get them to auto-run. Many computers will have auto-run switched off anyway so you need to give clear written instruction for the user in this eventuality.

One of the most versatile file formats to use on your CD is HTML web pages as these will run on all machines with a fairly standard appearance. However you will need a special program such as ShellRun to start the user's default browser.

If you need to run a server from the CD, such as Dynamic-CD, you will find that you are limited to Windows systems (W95 will usually need some upgrades to work). If a significant proportion of your target audience uses non-Windows machines then you will have to put different versions of a server such as Apache on the CD. You will almost certainly need to use manual intervention to some extent and install some files on the user's hard disk. (Assuming the machine has one!)

(ii) Non Installation of software
If at all possible don't require your users to install the information onto their hard disk. Many people will we worried about filling up the space, causing conflicts that could crash their computer, have a company policy about not putting information on PCs (without authority from the IT department) or just not want to hang around waiting for the process to complete.

In some instances you will need to copy some files onto the user's computer. For instance MySQL and Apache need to be able to write to certain log files, so these files obviously cannot be on a CD. They should go into the %TEMP% folder and not onto C:/somethingorother folder, as the C: drive may not exist and it needs to be clear that these files can be deleted at a later stage to release disk space. If at all possible automate the checking and copying process using batch or script files but make sure you provide information about what you are doing. You will find helpful ideas on this topic on the phdcc web site.

(iii) Virus Warnings
If you find that you do need to run scripts that write to the hard disk, any correctly set up computer should give a Potential Virus warning. You need to warn your users that this is going to happen and tell them what to do. (Presumably allow the script to run).

(e) Packaging

Make your CD something to be cherished! With junk CDs being distributed all over the place you need to differentiate yourself. Make the printing attractive as well as informative; send the CD in an A4 ring binder sleeve so it can be filed somewhere other than the bin!

V. More Comprehensive Solution

(a) Converting to database

As well as the issues mentioned above, there are a number of points that have to be considered if you decide to use a database on your CD. Most information needed for a catalogue can be presented as a single table and this makes some simplification options a possibility:

(b) Servers on CD

There are a few applications that you can include on your CD that will allow it to operate as an HTML server and run active web pages with scripts. The reason this is an attractive alternative is that it allows you to transfer your existing information in the form of web pages but with database functionality. Different software approaches the problem in various ways:

All these servers should be able to run from the CD without installing more than a few temporary files on the hard disk however there are two other possibilities that are worth considering: Java and .NET. Both these languages require an application (Java virtual machine or .NET framework) to be installed on the user's computer. The difference is that this application is of general use - it's a bit like an extension of the operating system and can, in theory, be used by lots of other applications in the future. (A bit like having a Flash player installed) Both Java and .NET have ways of serving web pages and reading from the databases mentioned above. .NET is Microsoft's baby and is being heavily pushed but Java will almost certainly run on more non-Windows systems.

At the end of the day you should be guided by the systems already in use within your organization or supported by your Internet Service Provider. There's no point writing a Java applet to access your database on CD if you will have to convert it all to MySQL and php to publish it on the web at some later date.

VI. Going Back a Step

(a) A web accessed database

While you are reviewing the various possibilities for putting information onto a CD or DVD it is a good opportunity to look over your general business management software. In many instances this system will represent a large investment of time and money and a decision to switch to a new system will have profound consequences for your business if it doesn't work out!

However the world of computer systems is constantly changing and what was futuristic five years ago is now well established, safe technology. As well as this, the business environment is evolving with "peripheral" systems for quality, health and safety and environmental control being integrated into the core database model. And finally: sales over the internet are growing in quantity and acceptability with most ISP's offering free on-line shopping cart facilities.

The advantages of putting your main business software on the internet are:

The disadvantages are:

Although there will be a sizeable amount of work involved in a project of this type there are several sophisticated tools available for converting existing database systems or generating web pages from an existing database structure. There are even complete open source systems that can be brought on-line quickly then modified to suit your requirements.

VII. Conclusion

Putting a catalogue on CD or DVD can involve a lot of issues but if it is done in a methodical way, using the appropriate resources it can be done quickly and without undue expense.

VIII. Software used previously

This is not exhaustive; simply a list of things of which I have personal experience. You should search on the internet for comments and alternatives.

(a) Databases

Access, MySQL, SQLite

(b) Search Engines

FindinSite-CD, search maker, swish-e, zoom

(c) Servers

Dynamic-CD, Abyss, Apache, Xitami

(d) Script languages

ASP, PHP, Perl, .NET, Java

(e) Useful tools

ShellRun (autorun application for Windows), phpMyEdit, ASP/PHP Web Application Builder, Code Charge Studio (generate screens from a database) Nola (accounts, stock and sales control using php and MySQL)
Paddy Gaunt, January 2005.

Comments:

Mary Kay Rawson, Tue, 7 Aug 2007 07:26:06 -0700
Hello, I am not a programmer, I am a graphic artist that is offering to clients put their annual conference material on cd for distribution. I have used Acrobat to materials into a pdf.For users with Reader 7.0 or higher all is fine, but for those that have systems that cannot go higher than 5.0 or possibly 6.0, , there is loss to quality of graphics and some functionaltiy. Allowing for the "lowest common demoninator" in potential users, I need to offer a CD that works and looks good for all viewers. Your software is for windows only, but how do I go about making CD automatically open on a Mac? I'm going to try your 30 day trial, sure looks like the solution but any help I can get from you folks would sure be appreciated. But thank you, your site has been far more informative than Adobe!
- See here for details of Mac autostart.

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