Report from the Field
Fall 2006 ASIDIC: The Future Is Here
by Donald T. Hawkins
Although we spend a considerable amount of time thinking about the information industry’s future, the Fall 2006 ASIDIC meeting held Sept. 11–12 in Newport Beach, Calif., made it clear that many trends that we thought were coming in the future have already arrived.
New business models are taking center stage. With the advent of electronic information products, the long-established 80-20 rule (80 percent of a company’s revenues are generated by 20 percent of its products) has waned. Instead, the Long Tail is gaining popularity because many electronic commerce businesses have no physical inventory. Chris Anderson’s notion of the Long Tail, which was first described in an article in Wired magazine, has now been further explained and illustrated in his recently published book, The Long Tail (Hyperion Press, 2006).
ASIDIC keynote speaker Ezra Ernst, CEO of Swets, North America, noted that information discovery is the key to the Long Tail. He pointed out that electronic content offerings permit almost limitless variations among content types, publishers, and consumers. Indexes, impact factors, and publication types still generate hits or best sellers that drive the publishing world, but this model has started to change. Customers are using statistics to determine what they want to buy, but the challenge remains understanding how and what numbers to measure. Librarians will need new tools to help them decide how to buy Long Tail content.
More User-Generated Content
The traditional business-to-business-to-consumer model has not served businesses well because they have less than ideal knowledge of their customers’ behavior about using information services and products. According to Matthew Hong, vice president at Thomson Gale, a more consumer-oriented business model requires a new focus on end-user behavior. Studies by the Pew Internet & American Life Project and others have found that a new generation of “digital natives” has arrived as a significant market force. As search tools move to personalized services such as MySpace and Facebook, content is also shifting to more user-generated varieties. Users are now tagging and categorizing instead of information professionals, which has major implications for information providers. To succeed, traditional information offerings must integrate themselves effectively into current Internet-based work flows, which they have failed to do so far.
One interesting new search engine, developed by the U.K.-based Trexy.com (http://www.trexy.com), uses “search trails” to help users solve the common problem of trying to return to a previous search result. The inspiration for Trexy was “As We May Think,” an article by Vannevar Bush published in Atlantic Monthly in 1945. Nigel Hamilton, the inventor of Trexy, defines searching as a three-step process: 1) First, the searcher’s trails are followed to see if the subject has been searched. 2) Then a trails database is checked to see if the subject has been searched by someone else. 3) Finally, the searcher becomes a “trailblazer,” if those processes fail to produce any results. Trexy adds the search terms to its database to help users get good results.
Meeting Worldwide Mobile Demands
The world is becoming increasingly mobile. According to industry statistics, of the nearly 1.8 billion wireless subscribers worldwide, 208 million of them are in the U.S. In 2005, U.S. wireless subscribers grew by 25 million, which is the highest growth rate ever recorded. Cell phone market penetration in the U.S. is nearly 69 percent, which is greater than the market penetration of cable TV or home PCs.
Text messaging has also become a huge market, especially outside the U.S. (although U.S. text messaging is rapidly catching up to the rest of the world). About 165 million U.S. adults have text-message-enabled cell phones. This burgeoning market has produced opportunities for information service providers, one of which is UPSNAP, Inc. Tony Philipp, UPSNAP’s CEO, described some of his company’s offerings, including mobile 411 service, airline information, package tracking, Bible quotes, and others. UPSNAP functions as a “broker,” linking service providers and users by providing seamless access to them or providing the information directly to the user’s mobile phone screen. In fact, UPSNAP provides free 411 directory assistance service (conventional 411 on a cell phone can cost as much as $2 per call). When the user searches for a merchant’s phone number, UPSNAP initiates a call connecting the user directly to the selected merchant. The merchant pays for the referral, so the user is not charged for the directory assistance. Philipp noted that most people have their phones with them at all times and are willing to pay for the convenience of getting information that would otherwise be free delivered to their phones. So, mobile services well may be the gateway to on-demand information delivered anywhere.
The Importance of Digital Services
Are libraries and publishers headed the way of Polaroid cameras, record stores, classified newspaper ads, or travel agents, all of which are in danger of being supplanted by digital services? Rick Burke, executive director of the Statewide California Electronic Library Consortium (SCELC), said the first stop by most information consumers is Google, not a library or commercial database. Libraries and information providers need to work together to make their resources valuable to consumers; if they can’t, Google or another search engine could license content from providers for free to users in an advertiser-supported service. If this happens, library consortia would lose their influence, and service levels would decline significantly. Burke raised significant challenges from an academic librarian’s viewpoint:
• Could advertisers replace libraries and consortia as the real gatekeepers of information?
• Do we want a purely market-driven information space where the voices of the higher education research community are drowned out by what is popular?
• If Google prevents the need for direct access to content via proprietary search interfaces, why do we need publishers?
To meet these challenges, publishers must get to know their customers and ensure that their services are meeting customer needs better than a general search engine such as Google. Current bundling and restrictive content licensing are antagonizing information users. For a humorous but excellent illustration, check out a video produced by DeepVertical at http://contentslice.com/video.
The world is indeed changing, the future is here, and the ASIDIC meeting addressed this. The Spring 2007 ASIDIC meeting will be held in March 2007; the dates, venue, and topic are still being finalized, so check the ITI Conference Calendar at http://www.infotoday.com/calendar.shtml or the ASIDIC Web site at http://www.asidic.org for more information.
Donald T. Hawkins is information technology and database consultant at Information Today, Inc. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Send your comments about this article to email@example.com.