Magazine article American Libraries

Observations on the North American Library Automation Marketplace

Magazine article American Libraries

Observations on the North American Library Automation Marketplace

Article excerpt

THE SEAMLESSNESS OF WEB-BASED INFO RETRIEVAL IS REFASHIONING AN INDUSTRY AND THE INSTITUTION IT SERVES

In the past few years the pace of change in the library marketplace has become positively bewildering. The development of the World Wide Web has shaken up the product development priorities of every major vendor in ways that were unimaginable only five years ago. This frantic pace has made it hard to plan ahead. Trying, in late 1996, to predict the future of the library marketplace is akin to playing one of those video arcade racing games in which the car you are driving is moving so fast you barely have time to react to the road immediately ahead, and no chance at all to anticipate what's in store for you three seconds "down the road."

The pace of change is the most noticeable technology trend. In the good old pre-Web days, hardware and software development cycles used to take about 18 months. According to a June 3 New York Times story ("A Quicker Pace Means No Peace in the Valley"), hardware generations now reign for about six months, and software generations for popular Internet-related software are superseded every three to four months.

This fast pace of innovation has many librarians anticipating--and expecting--major changes in library application software to keep up with the fast pace with which the software market at large is adapting to the networked environment. This puts pressure on library vendors to quickly incorporate the newest network and information-processing software tools into their flagship products or risk gaining a reputation as technology laggards.

Another significant technology trend is the increasing dominance of Microsoft-compatible computers--and the gradual fading of proprietary operating systems from other companies such as IBM, DEC, and Apple. The ascendance of Windows has paralleled the decline of both the mainframe culture and the stand-alone micro-computer culture.

The time has come to abandon the library automation categories of mainframe, minicomputer, and microcomputer that we still see mentioned in the library press. Now that server hardware is continuously scalable in size, and the predominant paradigm has shifted to a networked client/server architecture, these distinctions have lost their meaning.

Soft sea changes

The swift spread of the Web and of client/server architecture has caused a sea change in software development. Using the Web as the medium of data access and exchange creates enormous potential for the swift development of seamless system-to-system connections that could heretofore only be achieved painstakingly slowly.

And switching to a client/server architecture is also enabling vendors to offer huge increases in user configurability and flexibility. These opportunities are causing automation vendors to experience a new urgency to upgrade their software. One need only contrast the ease with which searching and screen displays can be controlled by the user in the best of the local library systems based on client/server architecture with the limitations and relative inflexibility of the host-based software still in use by some of the more established IOLS vendors. Or the seamless way data in Web-based PACs can be linked to otherwise unrelated Web-based information resources vs. the single-resource-at-a-time limitation of most non-Web-based PACs.

There is a growing disparity between the functionality of the mini/mainframe and stand-alone microcomputer "legacy systems" and that of the newest client/server and Web-based products. Most libraries, however, still use a local system in which the "mainframe" (used here generically regardless of the size of the computer) is accessed by dump terminals.

The time and expense it takes for established vendors to rewrite their software from the ground up (to take advantage of Windows-based client software using standard client/server protocols) are providing opportunities for significant shifts in market share among IOLS vendors. …

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