Magazine article Information Today

Is Online Ready for Primetime?

Magazine article Information Today

Is Online Ready for Primetime?

Article excerpt

For years, the planners of the Southern California Online Users Group (SCOUG) annual retreats in Santa Barbara have attributed their program topics to divine intervention. Late in April, the flyers went out for this year's Retreat [last weekend in July; for details, contact William Richardson, 818/242-2793]. The topic is "The Virtual Information Professional: LIFE AFTER PAPER."

As I was writing this column, a friend at Mead Data Central called with the news that Mead Corporation has put MDC up for sale. Needless to say, the next call went to the SCOUG Retreat coordinators to say that the "Hand Of God Messenger Service" had done it again! We have our scenario, our working exercise for the Retreat weekend! What will our assemblage of crack information professionals suggest to future planners and purchasers of a leading full-text online search service emerging from ownership by a paper company?

Looking at the press release describing the divestiture by the giant paper company, I was first struck by the openness of the announcement. In the past, big players in the online database industry involved in a sale have kept the process very hush-hush until the deal was made. Gurus measured their connectivity and the snap, crackle, pop in their personal networks by the number of calls starting with the words, "Have you heard...?" This current announcement almost seems like a call for a bidding war. Goldman, Sachs and Company won't have to find offers, but field them. Looking at MDC as a purchase, clearly the LEXIS/NEXIS services are the torso of the deal, while Michie Company's legal print and CD-ROM activities, Jurisoft division's legal software, and Folio Corporation's general text database management and electronic publishing software are more peripheral. Clearly Mead Corporation intends to get the best price possible for MDC in the hot international market for information companies. Maybe they expect to tap some of the leftover money from deals that fell through like Bell Atlantic and TCI.

This brings up the old question customers and industry observers have had for years. Can the traditional leaders of the online database industry get out of their niches and into mainstream marketing? Can the supermarket online search services that have sat on the gold mine of universal human knowledge for some two decades now finally expand their mining technology and start digging out the answers people want? Is online ready for primetime?

Potential Purchasers and Purposes

Who will buy Mead? What new or substantially enhanced players will come into the field using the acquisition of MDC as the on-ramp? What will they do with MDC? What will they expect from the purchase?

Just off the top of my head, I suppose the candidates to purchase MDC would come from one of two categories: content-based concerns like publishers or other search services or tool-based enterprises like computer or communications companies. Frankly if publishers, computer hardware or software manufacturers, and/or telecommunication companies start to bid against each other, traditional database search services may never even enter the fray. For this reason, I would guess we will not see West Publishing buying off Westlaw's biggest competitor.

Content-heavy companies with lots of print publications moving further and further into the arena of electronic publishing might find MDC an attractive option. Smart publishers should realize by now that one of the key characteristics of the electronic consumer is indifference to sources. Broad-based information retrieval services provide more flexibility and thus more product and service potential. Electronic data customers want answers not excuses ("What do I care if you don't publish it? Go and get it...and I mean NOW!"). Publishers with publications that answer three-quarters or even 99.99 percent of a typical question find themselves dealing with customers that insist on the missing piece. …

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