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IHS Ends Microfilm Production, Goes to CD-ROM and the Web: Another Nail in Microfilm’s Coffin?
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Posted On December 21, 1998
IHS Engineering (http://www.ihs.com), the founding and largest company in the IHS Group (originally titled Information Handling Services) (http://www.ihsgroup.com) announced in December that it will cease producing microfilm data collections. IHS began creating collections of engineering and technical data on microfilm in 1959. As of 1999, it will no longer produce any microfilm versions, but only electronic platforms. IHS will convert all remaining microfilm customers to electronic media, even purchasing computers for customers without systems to promote the switch to CD-ROM or Internet products.

For over four decades, IHS Engineering has amassed collections of engineering and technical specifications and standards covering several engineering disciplines. The technical data includes international and national engineering standards, corporate standards, electronic components data, manufacturer and distributor catalogs, military and federal specifications, government parts and logistics data, federal procurement regulations, and engineering design guides. The company offers over 1,900 different combinations of products, selling data primarily by subscriptions to corporations or government agencies, with prices that can range from a couple hundred dollars for a subset of a catalog up to an average of $10,000 to $15,000 a year for some site licenses. Ancillary operations like Global Engineering Documents and Industry.net support pay-per-use document purchases.

In the history of its microfilm operations, IHS estimates that over the last 40 years it has sold over 1.6 million miles of film, the equivalent of 67 trips around the world at the equator or of three trips to the moon. However, in recent years, the Internet and other electronic formats have taken over almost completely. Microfilm sales have dropped to less than 5 percent of revenue at IHS Engineering.

Patrick Romich, president of IHS Engineering, recalled that the customer transition from microfilm to CD-ROM, currently 55 percent of the company's market, took 5 to 7 years, but he expects the transition to the Web to take half that time. IHS released its first database on the Internet in March 1997, and now Internet sales account for 40 percent of revenue. Romich indicated that half that 40 percent represented customers who had switched and half represented new sales driven by Internet access. He estimated that Internet sales will reach 50 percent or more by the end of 1999.

Internet delivery not only provides a more flexible and usable product in electronic format, according to an IHS representative, but it also allows IHS to update stored documents and add new documents daily. The majority of its products continue to be distributed on CD-ROM, but more and more clients use the Engineering Resource Center (ERC) (http://www.ihserc.com), its unified Web database collection. IHS offers three types of Internet access: direct connection to its Internet hosting, an intranet connection to CD-ROMs stored on the customer's site, or an extranet combination of services with a leased line to the hosting center.

The company has an active acquisition program that in 1997 brought it Industry.net (http://www.industry.net), a Web-based information resource providing both free and pay-per-use access to information on industrial products and related technical data. Global Engineering Documents supplies hardcopy single orders. Romich indicated that these pay-per-use operations usually answer urgent needs. By January 1999, Global will have full e-commerce credit card support. IHS also offers a database listing available specifications and standards on DIALOG (File 99), which does not see a lot of usage these days, according to Romich.

"The Web is the key to the future for IHS," said Romich. "Engineers coming out of school today do not hoard physical data; they understand the electronic age; that's what they expect. This is both good and bad." With the Web, IHS can add more visible value, a necessity when a significant portion of the information you carry is public domain or widely disseminated. Romich said: "It's a value-based proposition. We add value with our controlled indexing, organizing the material, updating and managing it. The Internet lets us provide more content. It lets us help end users build their own technical dockets from a wide array of catalog and specifications and standards. ... Ultimately, productivity is the key. It's a matter of getting the information to people's desktops and putting it into working tools. The Internet has given us a great opportunity to reach more users, put more products out there, an integrate them with the tool sets people use."

IHS emphasizes building products for specific business-to-business markets, according to Romich. In designing its CD-ROM products, the company emphasized building for specific purposes, but, said Romich, "The Internet lets us do linking, cross-references, generic multi-file searches, sophisticated interfaces. It breaks through the media limitations of microfilm and CD- ROM."

We asked Romich how IHS coped with the difficulties of a Web environment, such as the illusion that all information is both available and free. He said: "Corporations are concerned with the amount of time their engineers spend on the Web. We provide a controlled environment where engineers can find exactly what they need to support engineering or product design."

Though no one ever accused microfilm of being user-friendly, we asked Romich whether IHS had trouble dealing with any customer aversion to the lack of tangibility in moving away from microfilm or even CD-ROM. He indicated that the Web had achieved general acceptance because it was so much more exciting. However, he did worry that "There are still a lot of sites out there that don't have good Internet access. Often it's because of firewall problems, but also people are concerned about integrating outside data. They're very protective of their systems." Still, he thought CD-ROM would lose ground technologically much faster than microfilm did, due to the tremendous technical advantages of the Web.

Internally, moving to the Web has not resulted in substantial cost savings at IHS, according to Romich. In fact, there have been some cost-intensive transitions to deal with in building a state-of- the-art hosting center. Dealing with electronic data-formatting differences, retraining staff with new skill sets, supporting "7x24 service" (7 days a week, 24 hours a day) for customers with thousands of end users attached—all these changes have imposed more costs. However, Romich considers it money well spent.

As for the death of microfilm, Romich thought that might be premature. "Microfilm is still a great medium for making masses of information organized and deliverable," he said. "In some places it will still be valuable, especially where they don't want electronic archiving." However, as head of a company that had its own large in-house microfilming operation, he noted that most of the outfits that used to sell them the film they used (3M, Bell and Howell, Kodak) have all transitioned to new technologies. He expects that microfilm will remain for niche markets.

IHS Group's engineering companies represent approximately $290 million of IHS Group's $415 million in total annual revenue.


Barbara Quint was senior editor of Online Searcher, co-editor of The Information Advisor’s Guide to Internet Research, and a columnist for Information Today.


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