The Better Mousetrap
by Matthew McBride
Principal Information Consultant, CInC, Inc.
Trend Tracking on the Road to Nashville
I'm a relatively new, although house-broken, puppy
when it comes to the information profession. The first
SLA conference I attended was in Philadelphia in 2000.
My wife, a fellow scientist, had just started her MLS
program and was volunteering with registration. I had
an exhibit-only pass and a Monday afternoon off from
work. I figured it would be worth the $5 SEPTA train
ride to get some free food, join a party or two, and
have the chance to speak with some software vendors.
However, I quickly realized why a former scientist
would find this such a fascinating profession data,
analysis, research it was all like a big puzzle.
Could it get any better? Since then, the closing of
every SLA conference keeps me looking forward to the
following year. Sure, it's never as sweet as the first
time; however, something new always piques my interest.
Usually, there's a lull before the storm. Vendors
hold back on a few choice product releases or announcements
for conferences (or just prior to them), and "The Better
Mousetrap" expects nothing less from the 2004 SLA Conference.
We'll have a full report on the Nashville gathering
in the September issue of Searcher. Until then,
here's an assortment of things we expect or would like
to see in Tennessee. These aren't predictions, just
some educated guesses based on general trends, or trends
we hope will start soon.
The information buzzword for the past few years is
definitely XML (eXtensible Markup Language). Simple
search forms, limited clicking, getting from here to
there in less time than it takes to think that's
all important. But it's the branding and simplified
formatting that information professionals are demanding.
As a vendor, if your data isn't available in XML, or
you don't utilize XML behind the scenes, you're living
in medieval times. Get with the program. It takes a
serious technology commitment to offer data in XML
format, but let's be honest the implementation
offers serious benefits. Less development effort is
required to quickly build a Web service for multiple
platforms (Web, e-mail, hand-held PDA, cell phone,
etc.). Information retrieval options are enhanced as
Those of you who don't see the need for XML should
read up on the benefits to research, as well as the
cost benefits to information aggregators and database
developers, which, in turn, should reduce or hold information
costs steady. Read the piece by David Skurnik, VP of
sales at Data Conversion Laboratory, Inc., entitled "Why
STM Publishers Should Use XML..." [http://www.dclab.com/stm_xml.asp].
In fact, information professionals should rave for
information delivered in a more intelligent format,
ready for automatic formatting for research reports.
Several information vendors and aggregators already
have the ability to deliver data in XML, but a few
stragglers are still catching up with the technology.
Will this year's conference showcase technology improvements
in information delivery? We expect so. Even ISI ResearchSoft
got into the game recently, upgrading its Reference
Manager software to allow the import and export of
files in XML format. Microsoft Office plays well too.
So why shouldn't all our information tools provide
output in XML? Expect several vendors to announce XML
data availability for standard searches and alerts
For more background on XML, visit the World Wide
Web Consortium (W3C) XML Working Group Web site at
XML is only a small part of the equation. Whether
you've developed one in-house or purchased a commercial
portal, you must seamlessly integrate content and search
forms into your Web site. Applets, gadgets, widgets whatever
you call them you want the tools in the hands
of your users, preferably with a standard look and
feel or corporate branding. However, the effort involved
in getting from point A to point B should be minimal.
In 2003/2004, several vendors, including Factiva and
Dialog, updated portal integration offerings with enhanced
application-programming interfaces (API).
Programming is only half the problem; information
cost is the other issue. Flat-fee pricing is essential
to controlling cost by end users in a portal situation,
and we should see more pricing options as portal integration
becomes more popular.
A majority of professional searchers use command
interfaces when retrieving information from Dialog,
STN, and QuestelOrbit and generally via unsecured
telnet connections (unless you dial into the system
via modem). No vendor that I know about and
please clue me in if I'm wrong offers Secure
Shell (SSH), a cryptographically strong replacement
for telnet. An even better, more secure alternative
for protecting your communications (not just content,
but login and password information) would be the Secure
Sockets Layer (SSL) technology used by most e-commerce
sites. Currently, several vendors, including STN, Dialog,
and Factiva, offer secure Web-based access to their
services via 128-bit SSL encryption. Secure access
to information will begin to gain more attention in
2004/2005, and let's hope that our command language
platforms will offer increased security for our searching
So why don't more vendors focus on indexing primary
Internet resources or even try to organize trusted
Web sites into a searchable database? Or offer the
power of their search tools to corporate intranets?
It would seem to be the next logical step in the evolution
of information services. Factiva appears to be moving
in this direction, both with the recent announcement
in March 2004 of its iWorker search technology and
the integration of Factiva into the Research Library
tool in Microsoft Office 2003. And Google's Search
Appliance has been around for a while, providing the
ease of Google within intranet or public Web site deployments
[http://www.google.com/appliance/]. When will we see
a major information vendor partner with a hardware
or software manufacturer to offer one-stop shopping
of corporate, Internet, and paid content?
Consolidation and Acquisitions
Can we afford more consolidation in this industry assuming
consolidation is a bad thing)? Of course we can. Larger
companies, while usually less flexible or innovative,
also have the strength of a greater R&D budget
to develop new technologies and products. As services
get gobbled up, new opportunities should arise. On
the other hand, bigger isn't always better; just look
at AOL Time Warner as a prime example.
In 2003, we witnessed (or experienced firsthand)
the divine, inc. downfall, Thomson acquired Techstreet,
and more corporate libraries were downsized. In the
field of search engines, we saw Yahoo! acquire Inktomi
and Overture, which had already purchased AltaVista
and FAST's search database. Relatively speaking, it
was a pretty quiet year. Will we see any drastic changes
to the industry this summer? Probably not.
What's It All Mean?
The combination of XML, portals, secure access, Web
archiving, and all those acquisitions is leading us
towards a unification or standardization of data format,
access, and delivery. Cell phones and PDAs have converged
into "must-have" devices for mobile professionals,
and the information industry is recognizing the need
for convergence of information and technology to eliminate
the roadblocks in legacy systems. It's 2004 and I want
to search wirelessly using my Palm or Windows Mobile-based
Pocket PC. Today's information resources are too limited
or improperly formatted to work well with small form
factor devices. Laptop users accessing resources from
public hotspots, hotels, or even their home networks
recognize the security risks present when accessing
the Internet (unless they have access to a virtual
private network VPN). Should information professionals
lend a hand in providing additional interfaces or securing
Beyond the challenges of handhelds and wireless access,
end users would prefer to access information through
a variety of applications, not just static Web sites
or search forms. XML goes a long way in solving these
problems. Look at the popularity of RSS (also known
as Really Simple Syndication or RDF Site Summary),
a dialect of XML, among Weblog users, and we get a
picture of what the future may hold for information
professionals and their clients. Or take a look at
how several companies are integrating their research
into the desktop. Information vendors such as Factiva
and Gale already provide their services through the
Research Library tool in Office 2003. Will others follow
I've debated with colleagues that the availability
of XML data and storage options (such as Office) on
the end-user desktop will present some renewed challenges
for the information professional, especially in the
area of copyright compliance. If users are not familiar
with data archiving or redistribution rights, a whole
host of new problems could arise.
The Bottom Line
Technology improvements, new data sources, product
releases and door prizes all of this is in play
at the SLA conference. But let's face it, who isn't
thinking about the evening parties and social events
during the daytime talks at the conference? Can you
gauge the health of the industry by the parties? Maybe,
but it is not the ultimate litmus test. The best indicator
is a combination of conference attendance (quantitative)
and general optimism (qualitative). The annual SLA
conference has got it all, especially for networking
with your fellow searchers. If you can't find anything
else interesting at the conference, just use the moment
to offer your criticism or feedback directly to your
favorite information industry CEO. I've found most
of them very receptive to customer contact (especially
during the parties), and your opinions ultimately help
sway future product decisions. If that doesn't help,
you've got even more of a reason to complain next time.
My mother always said, "If you're not part of the solution,
you're part of the problem."
"The Better Mousetrap" hopes to see many of you at
the conference this month. If you hear any juicy rumors
before/during/after the conference, or just want to
touch base, send us an e-mail at email@example.com.