Magazine article Information Today

The Internet as a CD-ROM Alternative?

Magazine article Information Today

The Internet as a CD-ROM Alternative?

Article excerpt

Last month, I looked at technological developments that some believe are threatening CD-ROM as an information storage and distribution medium. All the alternatives represented some kind of off-line medium, and I concluded that none of them poses an immediate threat to the essential function of CD-ROM: that of mass distribution of multi-hundred-megabyte databases on discs whose replication cost will drop below $1 this year.

However, there may be a fiercer competitor for CD-ROM publishers (and commercial online information services) to face: the ubiquitous Internet with its attractive World Wide Web subset. For a time, we could easily dismiss the Internet resources as disorganized and too amateurish for professional information services. This is not true anymore. In the past few months, hundreds of excellent databases and dozens of splendid search engines have appeared on the scene. They are all available free of charge to the thousands of academic and special libraries and the millions of faculty, students, and corporate employees connected to the Internet. These people and institutions are the ones who have represented the largest user sector for many CD-ROM products and commercial online databases.

Increasingly, CD-ROM database subscribers may start canceling subscriptions, while online database users may stop paying $60-$70 hourly connect fees when they find out that a comparable or better source is available through the Internet. While I rush to add that this is the honeymoon period and that many of the really good Web databases are unlikely to remain free for long, they can still lure away a significant portion of the CD-ROM and online database user base. Some Web databases will, however, remain free: Web databases of government files, for example--some of which are first class--and those catalogs that help to sell products. There are hundreds of mediocre Web databases as well, but some, like Amazon (http://www.ama and the World Wide Music Catalog (http://www.worldwidemusic, com), I guarantee will blow your socks off and make you abandon the fee-based services offering similar information.

BIP, BOP, and... Flop?

As a specific example, follow the scenario that I envisage for Bowker's Books in Print database. It may play out with some other household-name CD-ROM and online databases as well, but BIP could be a textbook example for the challenges the World Wide Web presents. In 1986, Bowker was among the first to make exemplary use of CD-ROM technology. Being an essential reference source, it became a popular CD-ROM database overnight. While most producers of much-coveted content started to license their content to multiple third parties for CD-ROM publishing (PAIS, Sociofile, PsycLIT), since 1993 Bowker licensed its content for publishing only to online services such as (the now defunct) BRS, OCLC EPIC, OVID, and, of course, DIALOG, which has been hosting BIP for the longest time.

Apart from Baker & Taylor, Bowker had no competition for the CD-ROM version of BIP in the U.S. market and little (primarily BookData and Whitaker, both in England) in the rest of the world. This may have caused Bowker to rest on its laurels. Now there is a competing CD-ROM on the market. Primary Source Media came out with Bookscope, a relatively small but less expensive book directory. It has "only" 350,000 records, but 100,000 records have tables of contents, and there are several thousand short author biographies. BIP has neither. Many users will likely trade in BIP for Bookscope.

Still, this won't be a staggering blow to Bowker. That blow will come from the World Wide Web.

Attitude Problems There were few improvements and innovations in the content and software of BIP for its first 10 years. The CD-ROM network version and the consistently less-than-professional installation: instructions still generate more angry comments and pleas for help on the MLAN listserv than any other CD-ROM network software. …

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