Data providers have been slow to set up corporate services on the Net. Laurence Blackall finds out why
Although the Online Exhibition in London last December was celebrating its 19th birthday, it would seem premature to suggest that the industry had reached the age of majority. Late adolescence would seem a better way of describing the current state of play, for while the online information market may be about to enter its third decade, business, as distinct from academic, scientific and technical information is a relative newcomer.

In its early days, business information was an uneasy bedfellow with its academic counterparts, and its users rapidly became impatient with the absurd complexity of accessing information. If you regularly searched Data-Star, Dialog and the European Space Agency's Esrin, you would need to know three different search languages. This was in stark contrast to the easy-to-use financial information services run by the likes of Reuters.

But as business demanded better access to information, several new online services emerged. Thorn-EMI subsidiary Datasolve begat a news abstracting service, Reporter, which metamorphosed into FT Profile. Finsbury Data Services produced Textline, now owned by Reuters. And Datastream, now also part of the Reuters stable, burst upon the scene.

None of these services enjoyed immediate success, but they were all more user-friendly. That meant you no longer needed to ask the dragon in the library for this information: it could be delivered to your desktop computer.

Customers wanted more added value, and the late Eighties saw the arrival of companies such as Investext, an International Thomson subsidiary that put brokers' research online.

This was also the period in which Maid arrived; with its high-octane blend of market research, analysts' and company reports, newswire information and much more, the company caught the imagination of both corporate information users and the stock exchange.

Maid decided to deliver high-value information - not just abstracts - to whoever in the company needed it, rather than to the information department or library.

Have the higher-value information providers developed Internet strategies yet?

Not many of them. The "free" culture of Net-based information has most providers wringing their hands as they try to figure ways to make money from it. Plaudits again to Maid, which has grasped this particular nettle with some aplomb, signing an agreement with Netscape along the way.

David Raitt, chairman of the annual Online conference, is excited by the possibilities of the Net.

"As a method of distributing information, it will soon start to threaten traditional publishers," he says, "although the technology still has some way to evolve."