|The Millennium Issue||Volume 8, Number 1 • January 2000|
• WEB WISE WAYS •
Life Online in the New Millennium: Absent Friends?
Amelia Kassel — President, MarketingBASE
With that in mind,
I spin a little yarn for you to think about. Let me warn my readers in
advance that anything I say does not predict the disappearance of any real-world
vendor. This story reveals a dose of future possibilities and hopefully
adds a little in the way of genuine guidance should any of this nonsensical
(?) tale ever come true.
I’m awake. It’s January 2nd, 2000. I’m ready to go to work after the maddening excitement of the turn-of-the-century celebration. Shouldn’t this mania occur next year on January 1, 2001, instead? Oh well. We’ll celebrate then, again. It’s a deranged world and getting crazier all the time.
I move to my trusty computer and log on to SUPER. I’m ready to start working on several projects that must be completed during the next few days. You know, this entering a New Year and a new millennium has me excited. I feel fresh and positive about my life and my work. I click on my trusty SUPERconnect software and then on Connect, which the younger generation of today’s Web browser searchers would think of as old-fashioned. To my surprise, the initial system response is, “Sorry wrong address.” I try again, several times, and call the customer-service phone number, 1-800-4-SUPERB, the same number that I’ve called as long as I can remember. The computer voice at the end of the line says, “Sorry wrong number.”
Now, don’t panic, not yet. I log onto http://www.super.com. A message appears saying, “An error occurred while processing this request.” Next, a Problem Form comes up that says, “Problem Report, HTTP Error 503 occurred while attempting to retrieve the URL; Problem Description: Connect failed to server; Possible Problem Cause: The Server is busy; Solutions: Try again later.” I haven’t seen this message before at the site, although I’m familiar with it. In fact, it reappears every time I visit one site in particular that I found quite useful in the past; I’ve been waiting for a month for that link to work again but it hasn’t yet. I keep trying — hope springs eternal.
Increasingly concerned about my SUPER access puzzle, I quickly shoot off a message to AIIP-L (Association of Independent Information Professionals [http://www.aiip.org] and the Bus-L (Business Librarians) lists, asking whether anyone has a clue about what’s going on. I know that my colleagues on the East Coast will already have the answer to any information industry riddle, since they wake up and start work 3 hours ahead of the time I raise my sleepy head and open my eyes to each new day’s interesting industry surprises. As my e-mail begins downloading, I see dozens and dozens and dozens of messages. Startled, I wonder what’s going on. This is quite unusual; something is seriously awry.
“WHAT?!!” Information professionals all over the globe shout the horrifying news in a virtual uproar — “It’s confirmed. SUPER has ceased to exist!!”
The news catapults me into a state of shock. My thoughts turn quickly to my history with SUPER. I ask myself how the very online service that empowered me, that made me an online searcher, that had served as the dominant online resource for thousands of information professionals for years, could stop operating. If inanimate objects or companies can be heroes, SUPER was mine. How could a system containing hundreds of diverse databases with unique content, a powerful command language with an array of uniquely useful features, and the capacity to conduct multifile searching on the whole system when necessary — how could such a system disappear without any warning? How could the King of Online vanish? This must be a millennium joke or some temporary insanity that will vanish as quickly as it came.
Surely, it’s all
a big mistake. We’ve seen many information industry acquisitions during
the past 20 years. Somebody will certainly purchase SUPER and bring it
back to its loyal followers, despite the deterioration under previous and
current owners, and fulfill past promises to information professionals.
Or, could it be that SUPER has indeed disappeared, as did NewsNet, the
industry newsletter aggregator, whose own ex-president proclaimed it as
the first online vendor casualty of the Internet Age?
Could SUPER Vanish?
I sit back and reminisce, thinking about an incident that occurred 5 years ago. I was invited to speak to graduate students in library and information science at a California university on a panel that included someone from Dialog. What struck me was her comment that she and others at Dialog did not know whether Dialog would be around in 5 years. Of course, I couldn’t, and wouldn’t, believe my ears. Supermarket search services faced various competitive threats 5 years ago, although the Web didn’t carry the same danger that it does today for traditional online vendors. Nevertheless, the Dialog representative’s comment certainly intimated a warning and even, perhaps, a sign of susceptibility about what could happen.
Revenue and customer generation for supermarkets has flattened out, if not declined. Customer service has spiraled downwards with services that previously had been models of quality content, service, and training. Of course, for many potential users, pricing issues had always been a problem. Industry watchdogs and users alike have waged a continuous battle with all the major vendors regarding prices for years.
The battle between the few remaining services continues about which is best and each customer has an opinion. Some traditional search services have continued to expand content and to provide all-out customer service. These services have aggressively licensed additional content from more database publishers. Others have redesigned themselves to suit the Web and new end-user markets with user-friendly interfaces and radical new pricing models, such as Factiva’s $99/year for all your searching, but $2.95 for each article. Still technical and customer relations problems in adjusting to the Web have particularly plagued relations with the professional searcher market. All the supermarkets have aggressive campaigns to sign up large corporations with appealing enterprise-wide pricing deals that corporate librarians can’t resist. However, for professional searchers at least, some supermarkets have worsened their market position with unattractive, unpredictable pricing. Brand loyalty and customer confidence have taken body blows in some cases.
Searchers have begun using various alternatives, including CD-ROMs and the Internet. The growing number of viable Internet research providers has begun to move into the gap. Some providers have completely free searching or pay-as-as-you go pricing. They too offer enterprise-wide pricing and service options as well. Northern Light [http://www.nlsearch.com] even gives a money-back guarantee if you are not entirely satisfied with the information, an unheard of provision in the information industry. One new system, powerize.com [http://www.powerize.com] has established a new business model that makes it possible for them to give away premium information. This young company claims to offer 2,400 newspapers, trade journals, newsletters, press releases, and wire stories available at no charge, based on pricing that mirrors other Web and search companies, with revenue from advertising, e-commerce partnerships, sponsorships, and pay-per-view transactions. Another system, Transium [http://www.transium.com], offers free abstracts and organizes results using a value-added taxonomy. Of course, few of these Net Newbies will offer anything like the old-style customer support of a hand-holding representative who knows whereof they speak. On the other hand, what customer support you may get may operate “24x7.”
Below is a short list of selected contenders for your further consideration. It’s a hodgepodge of Net Newbies and the Web offerings of traditionals. It includes some I have written about for the “Web Wise Ways” column during the past year. The selection reflects my own business and market research focus. I’d like to hear from you about your favorites. Of course, a growing number of Internet-based services exist for patents and trademarks, science and technology, healthcare and medicine, and government and education.
Market Research Mall
The Wall Street
One of the great traditional supermarkets has recently taken a new direction, a major turn in the road. If they succeed, professional searchers may expect to see others follow. Even if Dialog doesn’t pull it off, the urge to tap into all that Internet money may move traditionals — or more likely, their owners — away from old models. The changes in corporate and strategic direction represent an effort to survive the fiercely challenging, newly sprung electronic world.
“Dialog would like to re-invent itself as a technology company rather than a business information provider,” says Caroline Daniel [“A One-Way Dialog Over Debt Delays,” Financial Times (London), August 21, 1999, p. 2]. Daniel spells out how “the provision of online business databases accounted for 97 percent of the Dialog Corporation’s group revenues … with growth forecast at [only] 1.2 percent in 1999.” She says, on the other hand, “Revenues from the e-commerce and Web solutions divisions are forecast to more than double.” The Dialog Corporation reconfirmed a commitment to e-commerce this past August when it announced the launch of Sparza Limited [http://www.sparza.com], a wholly owned subsidiary for the software sales arm of the Dialog Corporation’s e-commerce division. Sparza concentrates on the sale of e-commerce software to manufacturers, wholesalers, and resellers.
In my earlier fairy-tale scenario, we have to surmise that the decision to put the lights out on SUPER was based on the need to endure. In the real world, the owners would have divested the Information Services Division, or some of that division, rather than shutting it down. In the fairy tale, disastrously, apparently no buyers appeared, and, if they had, they might have converted SUPER into a niche-market service, sacrificing its omniscience along with archives, low revenue files, and SUPER’s reputation as a one-stop shopping spot for any information need.
As for redirected traditionals looking for their new place in the Web world, we wish them the best and hope that they live long and prosper. We hope they fulfill their goals and join the ranks of other successful Internet companies, although it looks like a rocky road ahead. As Richard Poynder explains, “There are dangers in assuming that the traditional online industry is a natural beneficiary of e-commerce, or that it can exploit e-commerce without first addressing a number of important issues” [“Thinking Outside of the Box,” Information Today, September 1, 1999, p. 54]. Poynder talked to Gartner Group analyst Alexander Drobik, who in turn pointed out that although e-commerce holds the promise of enabling traditional online services to significantly broaden their markets, the opportunities being offered will only be realized if vendors appreciate that “coming into the Internet is not like extending the market in a traditional sense.” Drobik says, “There are a whole set of different drivers, different competitors, and a whole set of different opportunities that need to be grasped.”
suggests, “The provision of online business databases … is now a mature
and increasingly competitive market.” Without question, all traditional
online services enter the new millennium with the task of making exceptional
efforts to keep afloat in these times of major technological change and
competition. Like their emerging rivals, they must consider new business
models, intensify marketing strategies, and develop penetrating strategic
alliances different from those in the past.
Life Without SUPER
The major challenge I face as I enter the new millennium centers on a much smaller problem than the information providers with whom I work. How do I meet client demand for my research services efficiently and cost-effectively? And which online services should I use to achieve these goals? Moreover, in my particular case, which online services should I recommend to the new generation of searchers that I train every day in The Mentor Program? In my distance-education training program for information brokers and desktop searchers, I require all students to have, and regularly use, a supermarket service account during a 1-year time period. As I guide students through the online research process, they build on their knowledge through experiential, hands-on exercises that become more complex as we progress. I assign exercises in a range of databases based on real-life questions to teach them about online tools. It’s my strong belief that this type of training offers an excellent foundation. Could I meet client demand and fulfill student training requirements appropriately without a traditional supermarket service?
I suspect that many of you have some of the same or similar questions about vendors you have used for years. While traditionals advance emerging products into new markets, countless information professionals wait or hope for answers to unmet promises. None of use can afford to wait much longer. We must move forward and learn about the new Internet database publishers, services, and tools, and new content providers. I’ve written about some of them this past year for this column and in other publications, as well as discussing Web databases from recognized traditional information companies. Writing this column has given me the opportunity to experiment with a growing number of new systems. Most of them offer pay-as-you-go pricing with user-friendly interfaces and graphics and links to other parts of the Web that provide added value for users.
The new Internet publishers often hire former employees of traditional online companies, being the shrewd entrepreneurs they are. Internet publishers work hard to understand prospective customers — both end users and professional searchers. They know the importance of strategic alliances and partnerships, drive their businesses on the basis of marketing considerations, and, if not already listed, have plans to hit it big by going public on the stock market.
of these companies do not make financial news headlines and maybe that
says it all. Moreover, I’ll be the first to acknowledge that there’s no
way to know who will survive and for how long. Nevertheless, we must consider
them. The early-bird pioneers are leading the way and have a good chance
of transforming our online future. New business models, better technology,
and high-speed access are contributing to lower costs in some cases, something
that some of us probably thought would never happen.
The Internet: A Premier Tool
As we enter the new millennium, the resources on the Internet are becoming the premier tools for professional searchers. One could not have said that 2 years or even 1 year ago. Certainly, I agree that Internet sources still have serious drawbacks. Web browser access and technical problems still hinder the heavy-duty, in-depth research that I must conduct. Security is a potential threat and a major concern for sensitive proprietary environments. Although major vendors have migrated to the Web, their Web interfaces and the inherent nature of the technology itself make for inferior products.
Another serious industry problem has cropped up too: Some publishers will not license their databases to major aggregators for Web use, and aggregators are struggling to convince publishers otherwise. To my dismay, and that of other users, I learned of 100 titles that appear in classic LEXIS-NEXIS, but have not become part of LEXIS-NEXIS Universe due to licensing impasses. The word about this problem started circulating on electronic mailing lists after accidental discovery, rather than open disclosure.
This was a major
faux pas, in this writer’s opinion. Apart from a cost fairness issue, namely
when users don’t get what they thought they would for their money, missing
files can conceivably create a potentially serious problem with regard
to client relations. Even worse, a situation of potential liability could
exist if a searcher does not find some important piece of information or
source, because they don’t know that it’s missing from the online service
they use — or at least from the Web version of that service. Users, particularly
professional searchers, can understand when a vendor has problems, but
they still need to know about them. They expect good vendors to be forthcoming
about problems that affect search quality.
We Change, We Grow, We Burgeon
Change and challenge are activities that information professionals engage in daily and for always. As I’ve talked to various information professionals throughout the past year, I’ve become aware that technology problems are diminishing somewhat and that many users feel they could continue with or without the traditionals. I hope that the traditional vendors will fit us information professionals as a high priority on their market agenda, but there’s little guarantee of this.
At the same time,
I’ve found that many information professionals eat, breathe, and live by
the Internet alone.
Specialized newsletters such as the Cyberskeptic Guide to Internet Research and PriceWatcher [http://www.bibliodata.com] have arrived on the scene to help us evaluate and compare new Web products.
Our traditional publishers, including Information Today Inc., producer of many publications including Searcher, and Online Inc., publisher of Online and eContent (formerly Database), focus on extremely important and practical descriptions and discussions about the Web.
The industry’s major conference providers also have successfully created continuing education environments to support us.
Who said that information professionals had anything to worry about with regard to a future? We have much to learn about and more to do than ever before.
Although the force
of the Internet is shaping us, we’re proactively involved in shaping various
information tools and sources on the Internet. Whereas pricing issues were
once a major concern, new concerns deal with figuring out how to adequately
cover our bases and do so time-effectively. We have so many choices surrounding
us. Frankly, my dears, I think that the information profession will burgeon
despite everything that’s happened, or maybe because of it. Our life online
during the new millennium will keep us spinning with fascination in a virtual