Second site: Knowledge is money

Marek Kohn
Saturday 03 July 1999 23:02

THE INTERNET is the greatest commercial environment to open up since the fall of the Soviet bloc, but its natural climate isn't one that business people find congenial. "You mean we have to give it away?" was the dismayed reaction to the prospect of doing business on a network based on the free exchange of information. When the Net was an academic system, it adhered loosely to the academic procedure whereby individuals are salaried, and don't expect to be paid directly for the information they produce. This worked so well that major players such as Microsoft and Netscape had to adopt the same principle when they tried to make the Net into a paying proposition.

Now the network is in place, and patterns are beginning to emerge in the methods that enterprises are using to get returns on their investments. For companies with resources based on knowledge, digital technology offers new ways of dividing up, packaging and selling assets. A new e-commerce initiative launched by NatWest, iqport, offers a "trading exchange for knowledge" on the Web. Aimed at business professionals, it lists items of knowledge for sale, taking a commission on transactions. If companies have internal documents that could be sold to others, they can be made available through iqport at minimal cost. Associated websites for "knowledge communities" are being developed, where professionals with common interests in particular areas of business can exchange information. In received corporate wisdom, the balance is shifting from concern about confidentiality to the joy of sharing. It's a Net effect.

Academic publishers, traditional purveyors of knowledge, are learning to hop nimbly between free, special offer and premium rate. While the MIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences was a work in progress, the whole thing was available free on the Web. Now that it has been published as a book and CD-ROM (both at an introductory price of pounds 63.50; the latter soon available in the UK), just the abstracts of the articles remain on open access, but buyers get a password so that they can search the full text on-line. Macmillan is publishing its flagship reference series, built around its Grove Dictionaries, on paper and on-line only. Macmillan offers a variety of prices for access to The Grove Dictionary of Art (pounds 275 for an annual on-line subscription) and The Grove Dictionary of Opera (pounds 95 a year for an on-line subscription, compared to pounds 149 for the paperback). Carnet passes and 24-hour free trials are also available.

To make the prospect of renewing subscriptions more attractive, the publisher has to emphasise the quality of its updates and upgrades. In another commercial take on the Net's spirit of exchange, publishers are increasingly turning towards alliances in order to add value to their on-line products. The Grove Dictionary of Art has established a "strategic partnership" with the Bridgeman Art Library, which will make 100,000 images available to Grove subscribers.

The equivalent move for the Dictionary of Opera would be to create links providing music samples, but Macmillan takes the line that music sources should be used only where there is scholarly reason to do so: to demonstrate the sound of an unusual instrument, for example. Instead, it will concentrate on facilities such as CD reviews, or partnerships with enterprises such as ticket agencies. The august Dictionary can be parcelled up and repackaged like any other information resource in the digital age. Web users could one day find themselves reading snippets of Grove text on a ticket-booking site, just as users of Microsoft's Autoroute Express route-finding software may stumble upon entries from the Good Pub Guide. In the future, publications will be more like cars and other products, with few of their parts made by the company whose badge they sport.

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