Online Inc.'s Online World conference was held October 25 to 27 in Chicago this year. It took place amid a millennium-end atmosphere in the industry of anxiety and excitement at the pace of change and the number and complexity of issues to be faced. But given the innovative thinking that's being brought to bear on these issues—among old and new content and service providers and among their information professional customers—it's fair to add that an atmosphere of optimism also prevails.
The event provided a venue and a forum for addressing these issues and previewing and assessing solutions through its exhibit hall and numerous parallel conference tracks. There were, for example, the Practical Searching, Knowledge Resource Management, Web Technology, and Intranets tracks, as well as the forward-looking Millennial Searching and Outside the Box tracks. The usual content reviews and roundtable discussions fleshed out the parallel session offerings. In addition, of course, were three popular all-conference sessions—a keynote by Hewlett-Packard's Eugenie Prime, the seventh annual Online World Industry Announcements, and the second annual CEO Roundtable.
Speaking of Anxiety, the Keynote
"‘Welcome to my parlor,' said the spider to the fly …" began Eugenie Prime, manager of corporate libraries at Hewlett-Packard, referring to the allure of the Web for online professionals. Prime spun a cautionary tale of dazzled information professionals whose jobs have been tremendously affected by this "young and malleable technology"—an evolving technology that they themselves must help shape. She asked: "Why should we expect an intelligent answer when we put a question to the Web? After all, it's being run chaotically, by the participants, the users … and that includes us."
To clarify her metaphor (sort of), Prime posed the question: Who's the spider and who's the fly in this story? "We are both," she said. "We are hooked, but we are the ones holding ourselves hostage." She then raised issues and crafted quotable quotes in charging her audience to remain actively engaged in the Web's evolution.
Information overload is upon us, she said, to no argument from the audience! "Many times I just want to say ‘Stop the digitization!' When I add content to the intranet, am I making life easier for my customers … or harder? … A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention." To deal with the crafty, alluring Web and avoid getting entangled, online professionals must make demands of it. Or, as in the following, demands of a search engine: "Tell me your search strategy. Tell me how you define ‘similar' or ‘more like this'.… Why can't I have you limit my answers to those from ‘authoritative sources'?" On this subject of the credibility of Web sources, she drew a laugh when she said, "What we need is an ‘Oh Yeah?' button that would interrogate the source [of an answer to determine its authority]."
Prime went on to tell her audience that the solution to the spider/fly Web entanglement scenario lay within them and their profession. "Librarians have always been about organizing information so you can find it," she said, paraphrasing a testimonial librarians often hear after conducting a reference interview and pointing a patron to an answer: "How is it that you know what I wanted when I didn't really know myself?" And she closed with some rousing statements: "We must break free from a denial of the past, complaints of the present, apathy of the future … The search engine of the future is the online professional."
News, Announcements, and Exhibitors
Hard news, such as it was, flowed both from the Industry Announcement session on Tuesday morning and from some of the vendors on the exhibit hall floor. As noted in the title tag line of this report, it was generally found in content management tools and strategies and not content itself. Here's a rundown, with brief notes plus pointers to further detail.
1) LEXIS-NEXIS announced the December debut of Company Dossier, which creates a range of conveniently laid-out topical company reports on demand and on the fly from continually updating LEXIS-NEXIS sources. It will be available through LEXIS-NEXIS Universe, and it's based on LEXIS-NEXIS SmartIndexing—a process that incorporates both human and computer analysis for content indexing. For more, see the November 8, 1999 NewsBreak on Company Dossier.
2) CRIBIS Corp. officially launched its transaction-based SkyMinder.com combined European and North American business information service. SkyMinder.com had surfaced in a fairly big way last May at the National Online Meeting in New York. (We covered it in a June 14, 1999 NewsBreak). But according to a company spokesperson I talked with, its launch was pushed back from summer to autumn owing to difficulties with a third-party supplier of the necessary secure online credit-card purchasing component of the service. CRIBIS apparently finally turned to another party, and SkyMinder.com went live a couple of weeks prior to Online World.
3) Dow Jones Reuters Business Interactive (company CEO Timothy Andrews indicated that the company would be getting a new name, to be announced in early November) touted its Dow Jones Interactive Server Software 3.0, which it had described in an introductory announcement last June (http://www.businesswire.com/webbox/bw.060899/1198085.htm). Server Software 3.0 "enables companies to easily integrate news and information from Dow Jones Interactive into their workspace," according to that announcement. Here, its facility to allow users to share documents on an intranet, to add editorial comment, to enable the enterprise information professional to "create a knowledge management environment … [and] guide the information flow around the organization" were among the highlights noted.
4) Webforia announced again, having done so at Fall Internet World, its follow-on to Webforia Organizer, called Webforia Reporter. Reporter lets users and researchers in an organization gather, organize, and share the results of their research—for example, Web pages, word-processing documents, Microsoft PowerPoint slides—via interactive reports that can be annotated and that are navigated and viewed with any Web browser. The full company announcement is at http://www.webforia.com/newscenter/release11.asp.
5) The Dialog Corp. announced the first three modules of its new k-working (read "knowledge management) suite of software for the enterprise: InfoSort, the company's proprietary indexing technology, in a stand-alone version as part of this suite; Discovery, search software based on now wholly owned Dialog subsidiary Muscat's concept searching and linguistic inference technology; and Alert, intelligent agent software that notifies users when desired new information becomes available. Dialog also announced the previous morning the launch of its PowerPortal "personal Web gateway," both to DialogSelect content and to any and all other Web resources. For more, see the November 8, 1999 NewsBreak on both PowerPortal and the k-working suite.
6) IntelliSeek launched InvisibleWeb.com, highlighting what was a fairly hot topic at the conference: finding information on those parts of the Web that are not indexed by typical Web search engines. Available in a less comprehensive, less functional form via a license agreement between IntelliSeek and Lycos since last June, the free, expanded InvisibleWeb.com site takes users to the many searchable Web-based databases of information they couldn't otherwise easily discover. There, they can search out answers to their information questions, often via easy-to-use embedded search forms the site provides. We have more on this in a November 8, 1999 NewsBreak.
7) Aeneid Corporation broke the news that it had acquired InGenius Technologies and its Web-site change-monitoring technology, in order, of course, to create a new product incorporating that technology. That soon-to-launch product, EoMonitor, will add monitor-and-notification capabilities to the industry-specific content and search abilities of Aeneid's EoCenters. See the October 26, 1999 NewsBreak for more.
8) Finally, FatBrain.com (formerly Computer Literacy, Inc.) made its pitch concerning what session moderator Mick O'Leary noted was really some new content. Fatbrain.com's eMatter site and service comprise a model for any author to self-publish, say, a book, a report, a "mid-length document" that might until now have been considered unavailable "gray matter"; to sell it; and to earn royalties on that sale. While the announcement was not brand new news, the discussion it prompted about the possible wider dissemination of gray matter was interesting. Fatbrain.com's announcement was published in the October issue of Information Today, in the Internet Publishing section (http://www.infotoday.com/it/oct/news11.htm).
The mix of "old" and "new" companies participating in this year's select Industry Announcements was notable, with "newbies" continuing to earn their way in. Meanwhile, this year there was also an increase in newbies and "fairly newbies" among the companies in the two exhibit halls. Witness the presence of Powerize.com and netLibrary, whom you no doubt already know about. But there was also CatchTheWeb, whose Web page capture, research, and collaboration product seems to be trying to manage captured Web content in a way that, say, Webforia Organizer does. And Worldfree.net, whose cutting-edge KnowAll searching process, I think I'll call it, first analyzes the user's search question, then selects and queries dozens of existing Web search engines and processes their hits with a "natural language reasoning system" or "Organic Intelligence" in order to deliver an answer to the question. Perplexing, but worth an exploratory look at http://www.worldfree.net.
The CEO Roundtable: Some Substance, Some Fun
Ever since the assembled CEOs had at each other at last year's roundtable, this event has been anticipated with some glee. Again this year, participants were at pains to engage in some substantive talk, to score some points for themselves and their companies, and to provide some amusement. At the dais were Bill Pardue, NEXIS COO, a last-minute stand-in for LEXIS-NEXIS president Hans Gieskes; Patrick Sommers, COO of The Dialog Corp.; Tim Andrews, CEO of Dow Jones Reuters Business Interactive; Brian Cassidy, co-founder and vice-chairman of Webforia; Allen Paschal, president of Gale Group; and David Seuss, CEO of Northern Light Technology.
Online Inc.'s Marydee Ojala moderated, drawing these company big guns out on such things as the burden or benefit of bearing an old-line or new-guy-on-the-block brand name (NEXIS' Pardue hazarded that LEXIS-NEXIS' brand name doesn't always translate into the most modern impression; Dow Jones/Reuters' Andrews suggested that they all needed to work on global branding and global presentation.) and the issue of infoglut (Gale's Paschal asserted that the confusion is in the delivery, the "slicing and dicing," not in the amount that's being delivered. Northern Light's Seuss noted that for every Northern Light person working on getting content for its database, there are three Northern Light people working on refining search precision and other such issues.)
Andrews addressed the issue of new business models, disappearing revenue streams, and competition. He noted, "Four years ago we made 40 percent of our revenue selling information we can't sell anymore, because it's too widely available for free. We've got to continually reinvent ourselves and the kind of data we provide … [as] half the revenue we have today won't be here in 5 years …." In answer to a question about copyright and intellectual property rights protection, several panelists agreed that players in the information industry have done a poor job educating people—especially all those new knowledge workers entering the information realm via the Web—about why copyright is important. "We could take a page from the software industry," said Andrews. "They have done a very good job of ensuring that people really are paying the right fees to the right people."
On the pure amusement side, after being skewered last year over the existence in the Northern Light database of a pamphlet entitled "You and Your Stuffy Nose," David Seuss felt obliged to present Tim Andrews this year with not one, but two copies of the pamphlet. One, downloaded from Northern Light, he autographed himself. He claimed to have downloaded the other from LEXIS-NEXIS, and lamented that "Hans isn't here to autograph it, though." "Both of these came, by the way, from Gale Group ultimately," Seuss said. To which Webforia's Brian Cassidy, referring back to the issue of infoglut, said, "Isn't this a wonderful demonstration of irrelevant content!"
Sessions, Themes, and Conclusions
For purposes of space and time, I'm only able to briefly mention a smattering of the many ideas, issues, and pearls of wisdom that were voiced in the myriad conference sessions.
- In a session on Web searching strategies from the experts, searcher Mary Ellen Bates stated flatly that she now needs to revamp her Web searching assumptions every 6 months or so, given the flux in both the content and the technology in the Web environment. Research is taking longer now, given the number of potential sources and the number of other factors to consider, such as the kinds of searching tools (Boolean, natural language processing … ). And, she said: "I have developed a greater appreciation for the power and flexibility of the traditional services, at least for the professional online searcher. Fee-based services are cheaper when you factor in the cost of a searcher's time."
- Reva Basch's session "Information Quality and the Web: an Oxymoron?" presented a number of innovative interactive methods to measure quality that are coming on line, among which were what she termed "reputation managers." Google treats quality as a function of how many links there are to a site, for example, while auction site eBay enlists its users to personally rate their "purchase experiences." Epinions collects customer reviews of products, airports, etc., and also gathers ratings of the reviews. It even lets you learn about the reviewer. (Remember Eugenie Prime's "Oh Yeah?" authority control button?)
- Authors, consultants, and information professionals Ran Hock and Susan Feldman engaged in an interesting debate in their session, "Search Engines: Boolean vs. Natural Language Processing." Hock touted what he termed the "subtleties of Web Boolean," asserting that it is alive and well in Web searches and can coexist with relevance ranking. In fact, he said, most relevance ranking starts with a Boolean operation. He discussed the several forms of Boolean: Full (AND, OR, NOT … ), Simplified (+, - … ), and Menu Choice (must include, must not include …), and described how best to achieve Boolean control and relevance ranking in a search strategy. Interestingly, Feldman took Boolean to task precisely for its precision. "Precision is a way of putting blinkers on," she said. "It may find some documents, but it may miss many other and you'll never know it." Natural language processing queries carry more information and are better representations of the "fuzzy ideas" the person with the information need has in mind. A system shouldn't provide an exact match to an initial, perhaps faulty, query, but rather provide hints on how to home in on a better query, she said. Hence the strength of NLP.
Online World marks the start, in many ways, of a new "season" of information industry shows, both large and small. The evolving technologies, products and services, and business models that surfaced here, and the fervor with which conference attendees received them, ensure that it is going to be an interesting season.