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The question of the hour was, “Do you have a Web-user mindset?”
by
Posted On March 29, 1999
ASIDIC (the Association for Information and Dissemination Centers) held its semiannual meeting March 14-16 in San Diego. The two previous meetings had focused on technology and content issues affecting the world of information and had been very successful, so the spring meeting continued this theme by looking at content delivery over the Internet and the factors for success in this environment.

For over 20 years, publishers (mainly secondary publishers) have delivered their products electronically in what we have come to call traditional online information retrieval services. Now, not only secondary publishers, but growing numbers of primary publishers as well, are delivering their content via the Internet. The Internet environment has several unique characteristics and demands special competencies if information producers are to succeed in this market. Publishers are now faced with dealing directly with end users who have high expectations, are familiar with databases and the information contained in them, and who are also comfortable with the Internet. The ASIDIC program discussed features, characteristics, and strategies that can lead to success in the Internet information environment.

The meeting opened with an informal "focus group" in which attendees were asked to respond to about 30 questions soliciting their opinions on a wide variety of topics. Most attendees felt that costs for Internet access will be lower in the future, but that several types of information will still be accessed as they are today. For example, the majority opinion was that electronic books would not become popular until at least 2003. When these folks were asked to name the next major advances we can expect to see in the information business, quite a varied list resulted. Some of the items on the list were high bandwidth, wireless and cable modems, smart agents, imaging, personalization, distance education, and free access to information.

Issues discussed by speakers included electronic books, end-user services, problems of the library community, and the content value chain. Joe Bremner, president, Electronic Information Group (and longtime organizer of the popular Electronic Publishing event at the National Online Meeting), delivered the keynote address. He spoke on the patterns of the industry evolution and the importance of timing in bringing products to market. It is important to bring out new products at the beginning of a new technological cycle, even if the market is confused, he said. For example, those producers who brought CD-ROM products to market soon after that technology appeared enjoyed considerable success, while those companies launching products later on, after the technology had matured, did not fare as well.

Bremner said Web-based information products can be expected to develop in three stages:

  1. "We're on the Web."
  2. Full Web editions of products
  3. A Web mindset

Most companies are still in the first stage, he said, so now is the time for new products to be developed. In the future, we can expect to see integrated media firms, independent and focused marketplaces, and sophisticated alliances of very large companies.

The Emerging Electronic Book Market

Two presentations focused on today's emerging electronic book market. Paul Owen, consultant to Softbooks, stated that e-books will have a major impact on electronic publishing. Three types of companies are playing in this market: companies providing an integrated product to major publishers, software companies with electronic bookstores and products facilitating downloading the content to the user's PC, and device companies that provide a complete system on a (non-PC) handheld device. Softbooks, a Menlo Park, California company founded in 1996, has developed a device that has 8 megabytes of memory and can hold 100,000 pages (monochrome only). One of its major applications is distributing critical business information such as product information, technical manuals, and training documents to large companies.

The second speaker from the electronic book industry was Chris Pooley, CEO of ModernAge Books, who discussed some of the problems facing e-book publishers. The user interface of the printed book has survived the test of time, and people are comfortable with it. Many people do not like to read large amounts of text on a screen, and they are not willing to invest the time required to download large amounts of material from an electronic bookstore, he noted. And publishers are concerned that e-books will cannibalize their print sales. The best avenue of success appears to be delivery of books via the Web, and the most likely content initially will be highly technical material.

CEOs and Their Strategies

The meeting concluded with sessions in which CEOs from several information companies discussed their strategies. (This type of session had proven highly popular at the previous ASIDIC meeting.) Speakers in the CEO session were Modern Age Books' Chris Pooley, Rick Noble of Micromedex, Thomas Gay of Vista Information Solutions, and David Seuss of Northern Light. Each described his organization, its products, and its strategy for moving forward.

Noble described Micromedex as a company that produces information for the toxicology and environmental health industries as well as a series of databases on toxicology and related subjects used in most of the leading hospitals in the country. Healthcare organizations are generally slow adapters of new technologies and are still wedded to manual process for handling information, so Micromedex is forced to produce several versions of its products, some of which use outmoded technology, thus increasing its costs.

Vista Information Solutions, according to Gay, sells property disclosure information to the real estate and insurance industries. It is moving into Internet delivery of its services. Because of the recent passage of disclosure laws in many areas of the country, it is finding a growing demand for its products.

Northern Light's Seuss said Northern Light is continuing to solidify its hold on the Internet search engine market and is moving into the development of partnerships for its premium content database. It has built transaction systems to cater to a wide variety of users—from individuals to large enterprises—and uses several business models (by the piece, subscriptions, site licensing, etc.) to satisfy its customers' needs.

All the ASIDIC meeting presentations—and there were many more than I was able to report on here—were excellent and highly informative. A more extensive summary of the meeting will appear soon in the ASIDIC Newsletter—see contact information below.

ASIDIC meetings are always very enjoyable and useful because they are organized with a short lead time and can therefore address late-breaking developments and issues of current importance. They are one of the best places to learn about new technologies, new business models, and new products in the information industry. The spring 1999 meeting was no exception. All in our industry who wish to keep current on this rapidly changing and evolving market should put ASIDIC on their calendar and attend the meetings. For more on ASIDIC, ASIDIC membership (which is corporate, not individual), the association newsletter, and association meetings, visit the ASIDIC Web site at http://www.asidic.org. The fall meeting will be held in the Washington, DC area on September 26-28.


Donald T. Hawkins is is an information technology and database consultant at Information Today, Inc.

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