Magazine article Information Today

Thinking outside the Box

Magazine article Information Today

Thinking outside the Box

Article excerpt

-commerce, the latest buzzword to emanate from the Web, has been a major topic of discussion in the information industry this year-in Europe as much as in the U.S. The spring meeting of EUSIDIC, the European Association of Information Services, for instance, devoted a good chunk of its timetable to the topic.

Moreover, as Professor Dr. Georg Schultheiss, scientific director at FIZ Karlsruhe (STN International's European partner), pointed out to EUSIDIC delegates, other organizations are also turning to the industry for assistance. Thus the EU-sponsored Global Business Dialogue has asked EUSIDIC for help in publicizing e-commerce issues among small businesses in Europe.

One can see the logic. As James King, vice president of NEXIS Strategy Yc Business Development, points out, "Electronic commerce is something the online industry has been doing for years and years."

And not surprisingly, vendors are embracing the term with great enthusiasm. "Northern Light is very bullish on e-commerce," says Susan Stearns, director of enterprise marketing at Northern Light. "We have coined the term 'i-commerce,' or information commerce, to describe the unique set of capabilities which we have that allow us to create information e-commerce sites."

Nevertheless, 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.

As GartnerGroup analyst Alexander Drobik points out, although e-commerce holds out 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. There are a whole set of different drivers, different competitors, and a whole set of different opportunities that need to be grasped."

Clearly the first task is to establish what exactly, in the context of the online industry, e-commerce is. "To truly deploy an ecommerce system, a service must be completely Web-based, which few of the online information providers have been until very recently," suggests Stearns. "It must also offer great flexibility in its transactional systems-which again has not been the case for the online services, and still is not for the most part. And of course, in the information world, e-commerce requires the ability to immediately deliver full text to the individual user desktop."

Not surprisingly, Stearns is particularly keen to underline that newer "born on the Web" services like Northern Light are at an advantage when compared with traditional online hosts in the above respects. She is, nevertheless, right to draw our attention to these matters-especially the question of full text. After all, the majority of records held on online hosts today still only contain bibliographic details.

Additionally, the industry has never been very successful at attracting end users. Ecommerce, however, implies mass-market aspirations. "Most of the `old-line' players just do not cater to a wide enough market to use e-commerce in the way that I would define the term," says Wendy Warr, principal consultant at U.K.-based Wendy Warr & Associates. "They make too much money from the information professional, and not enough from the end user."

In any case, adds Warr, there are doubts as to whether the hosts' content providers are yet prepared to rise to the challenges of e-commerce. "I've tended to assume that companies in e-commerce are selling books, software, etc. Are electronic journal articles e-commerce products? I guess they are. But publishers don't all show an e-commerce spirit: Many are frightened of selling single articles over the Web for instance."

Stearns agrees that this is an issue. "While transactional, per-document pricing is not the only solution, it plays a very important role in information e-commerce. …

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