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Magazines > Searcher > June 2004
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Vol. 12 No. 6 — June 2004
COLUMN
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.

XML

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 well.

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 this year.

For more background on XML, visit the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) XML Working Group Web site at http://www.w3.org/XML/.

Portal Integration

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.

Secure Access

A majority of professional searchers use command interfaces when retrieving information from Dialog, STN, and Questel•Orbit 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 as well.

Intranet/Internet 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 their searching?

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 in 2004-2005?

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 matthew.mcbride@cincinc.com.

 

 


 

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