Paying for development

Early viable niche information services, were not born from the visions of Gibson, whom they predate, nor even Nelson. Rather, they were conservatively designed products of the conventional computing paradigms of the 1970s. This ‘safe ground’ approach impacted not just the design of these services but also their financial basis. Most significantly, the structure of user charges for early services was dominated by a perceived need to recoup development costs very quickly and so bore little relationship to the even then quite modest costs of ongoing operation of the services. This had the further corollary that there was little incentive to the operators to reduce their support costs through improved usability, as most of their income went towards the people who developed and operated the services rather than to computing resources and communications charges.

In 1981, I was contracted to design a pioneering Australian information service, The Australian Beginning,8 which borrowed from the models provided by two early US services, CompuServe and The Source, all three of which were targeted at early microcomputer users.9 Based on the knowledge gained on that contract, early the next year I undertook a detailed costing of operating such a service, based on sufficiently large volumes, and found that the computing and communication costs would have been less than a dollar per ‘user connect hour’, compared to the $10 per business hour and $5 per off-peak hour that were typical for those services.

Beyond development and operational costs, information services need lots of suitable information. While the World Wide Web shows that many people and organisations are delighted to provide information gratis (provided they can be confident of having an audience) earlier information services were predicated on a belief that users would only pay to use such a service if they felt the information content was worth paying for in its own right. So early service operators sought out providers and usually paid those providers for the privilege of carrying their information. While what were generally seen as ‘public’ information services, led by CompuServe, were happy to have relatively broad and shallow sources of information (outside the specialist computer areas), one very successful business was based on putting together a very large base of quality specialised information and charging accordingly.

Dialog Information Services is part of the Knight-Ridder publishing empire, and, despite being headquartered in Palo Alto, it is very much premised on the standard computing view in organising “over 330 million articles, abstracts, and citations” into “over 450 databases” which are all “accessible through a powerful, flexible search language” (my emphasis). Dialog charges $US15 per hour to access its tiny portion of community service databases such as “Health Planning and Administration” but goes to $US120 per hour for its various patents databases, with most of its offerings in the $US60-90 per hour range. Such pricing arrangements provide an interesting value comparison between various kinds of information, and it is equally interesting that Dialog still bases its charges primarily on the amount of time a user looks at a piece of information. It is also undoubtedly true that, for most users of Dialog, the total cost in time and money to get the information they want is much less than it would be from a more traditional source.

One big difference between CompuServe and Dialog on one hand and the World Wide Web on the other is that the commercial services own their information, or at least the right to access it electronically. Both those commercial services nowadays have Internet access, as a simple convenience for some Dialog customers, but as what has become an inescapable component of their total service for CompuServe. And they certainly became widely used, in Dialog’s case by serious researchers and in CompuServe’s by private computer users, long before the wider uptake of Internet access by those same user groups.

Unlike other ‘pretenders’ to the crown of the World Wide Web which provide the main comparators in this analysis, both CompuServe and Dialog have been commercially successful. However they both lack the underlying design vision which has brought the Internet and the Web to broader public attention. The Web could not have been built on top of CompuServe or Dialog—they remain limited by the practicalities of an earlier era. Rather, the Web has been built on the Internet, on still developing concepts of ‘electronic publishing’, and on a range of standards and process of standardisation, each of which we will see as being indispensable to the greater achievements of the Web.