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Microsoft Launches Book Digitization Project—MSN Book Search
Posted On October 31, 2005
Everything old is new again. With the entrance of Microsoft into the mass book digitization process, the status of books as "the next big thing" in digital content has been confirmed. Newspapers and the general trade press continue to treat Yahoo!'s participation in the Open Content Alliance as its way of competing with Google Print in this now critical content arena. However, most of the activities in OCA appear to be centered around libraries and the Internet Archive, a not-for-profit organization. (For information on OCA's expansion, read the companion NewsBreak, "Open Content Alliance Expands Rapidly; Reveals Operational Details" at Microsoft has also joined the OCA, but it clearly intends to make its book collection work within MSN, its portal service, as well. It has indicated that it will probably charge for value-added presentations of complete book information.

In its announcement of MSN Book Search, Microsoft also emphasized its investment in book digitization as a way to offer higher quality answers to Web searchers. Internal research at Microsoft indicates that more than 50 percent of people's online queries go unanswered today on Web search engines. The company believes that including book content will enrich search experiences by bringing offline content online.

Initially, Microsoft will focus on public domain books, relying on the Internet Archive to do the digitization as one of the tasks the Archive performs for OCA. Microsoft plans to expand the content of MSN Book Search to include academic materials, periodicals, and other print offline resources. Initially, Microsoft will commit some $5 million dollars for the digitization of 150,000 books from currently unnamed collections. The figure is based on an average of 10 cents a page for a 300-page book. A beta search site for MSN Book Search is expected to be available in 2006.

In time, Microsoft intends to work with copyright owners to legally scan protected materials. Microsoft representatives repeatedly avow their commitment to respecting all copyrights and to working out mutually agreeable protections for copyright holders, contrasting their virtue with Google Print's questionable policies. As a vigorous complainer about worldwide piracy of its software, Microsoft's commitment to intellectual property would seem unavoidable. Nevertheless, the company also believes that such a commitment, when aligned with its other assets, could lead it to have more access to in-copyright material over time, as copyright holders look to work with it. To this end, the company expects to add interfaces and technical avenues to facilitate a publisher's ability to feed content into its system.

Microsoft Network (MSN) currently has several hundred million users with localized versions available in 41 markets and 21 languages around the world. The initial 150,000 book commitment will allow free searching of the public domain book content through OCA outlets—e.g., Yahoo! Search and MSN itself. As an open Web content source, it can also expect spidering by Google and other Web search engines, and OCA material is downloadable. However, as in-copyright content in MSN Book Search expands through arrangements with copyright holders, complete access to all MSN Book Search content will probably involve a combination of free open Web and restricted, premium access.

Microsoft plans to provide value-added features to all its MSN Book Search content with advanced interfaces and integration. Christopher Payne, corporate vice president of MSN Search at Microsoft Corp, said: "We believe people will benefit from the ability to not just view a page, but to easily act on that data in contextually relevant ways, both online in the search experience and in the applications they are using. We are committed to working with various institutions to combine our technology and software innovation to deliver rich, treasured content that is not broadly available today. By combining our deep software investments in advanced reading technologies, productivity- and community-based applications, such as MSN Messenger, and new capabilities in the Windows platform will combine to make a powerful book search experience that will help people access new information and interact with it in entirely new ways." Examples of such advances could include indexing images, using graphics/keyword searches and other features, and facilitating book club-like interactions or group reading experiences.

So what's in this for Microsoft? At this point, it's a long road ahead. However, Microsoft is already looking at different business models to make the effort profitable. Danielle Tiedt, general manager of content acquisition for MSN, suggested a few models under consideration. These include pay-per-page, pay-per-chapter, monthly subscriptions, selling e-books, advertising, sponsored access, and so on. No decisions have been made so far. Obviously, the copyright status of the book will have great influence on the business model. MSN already has billing systems in place, as does Yahoo!. Google reportedly is launching a new billing system and is developing other payment platforms, including pay-per-view and the insertion of clickable ads into scanned documents.

Regardless of the business models chosen, Microsoft seems to have placed its commitment over time to enriching and broadening the functionality of online content. Liz Lawley, a visiting researcher working with Microsoft Search, said: "Microsoft understands that when it comes to Search, closed approaches won't work. The value in MSN Book Search will not come so much from the data as from the integrated tools and building interfaces to the data." Lawley considers the interfaces critical, especially since the majority of Web users don't form good full-text queries. She also believes that the world is well-served by having different organizations competing in this arena, fearing the specter of one organization containing and controlling too much of the world's information.

And what's in this for Web users? It seems one thing has become clear. All the major search engines, not to mention the world of Web users, now believe that all information should come onto the Web. Google's mission statement—"to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful"—seems to have become the mantra for all major Web suppliers. The race has begun to get it all done.

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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