The word "repurposing" ought to be banished from the dictionary of online publishers. Even The Economist 's wonderful survey of Internet issues turns out flat when it is moved from the printed page to their website. This story is one of the best current summaries of the Internet and a perfect candidate for showing to your parents if they have an intellectual bent but don't understand your work. Also, the Web version is not a complete disaster, having added hypertext links to the various companies that are discussed in the story. Even so, it is clearly a paper manuscript: the text is too long, there is no integration between text and graphics, and there is very little hypertext linking beyond references to company home pages.
Online publishing of newspapers, magazines, and books is really a meaningless concept. We have to leave the legacy publications behind as we invent the world of online publishing. Information will have to be organized in new ways that match the properties of the new medium rather than being derived from the way the physical limitations of the old medium caused information to be split up among specific publications. For example, all styles of online publications should offer ephemeral interest groups where the users can write "letters to the editor". This popular feature does not need to be restricted to newspapers in an online medium. As another example, restaurant reviews are more properly considered as a database than as a series of articles, and users should access them in a table-driven search and/or be informed personally when a restaurant appears that has a high similarity score with other restaurants preferred by each individual user.
I don't think that the launch of the Microsoft Network (ms n ) this month will mean the death of the Internet for online publications. First, Bill Gates says that ms n will "become a part of the Internet rather than strongly distinct from it," so it is not being positioned as an Internet-killer. Second, even if ms n wanted to kill the Internet, it couldn't.
ms n does have three advantages over the Internet:
- As a fourth-generation online service , ms n was designed from the ground up by user interface professionals. In contrast, the Internet is notorious for bad user interfaces designed by graduate students.
- As a proprietary service, ms n can provide user authentication for its information providers without any overhead to the users (except for the overhead of having to log in to the service in the first place).
- As a commercial online service, ms n has a built-in mechanism for charging its customers for microtransactions. Adding, say, five cents to the monthly invoice every time a user retrieves a copyrighted file is no problem.
The Internet will have to fix these three problems to become the dominant medium for value-added online publishing, and it is in fact moving rapidly to do so. Better user interfaces are coming to the Internet (for example, the redesign of Sun's web site was driven by usability studies and had a staff of user interface professionals), though some designs are still side-effects of the implementation.
Many websites currently perform user authentication by registration where the user has to select a userid and a password and enter them every time he or she accesses the site. User registration will have to die : you don't need much human factors expertise to predict that a human being cannot keep track of fifty or more different userids and passwords, and yet it is not at all uncommon for users to have at least fifty sites on their hotlist. Users will be writing down their passwords (leading to complete loss of security ) and they will rebel against the time wasted in finding their userid and password every time they follow a link to a different site. The user's computer will have to negotiate registration information with the remote site automatically, based on user-controlled preferences for what demographic data to reveal to whom.
In her seminal article on how to compensate intellectual property creators in a digital world where copies can be distributed to thousands of unpaying readers at the touch of a mouse button, Esther Dyson argues that payment for information will be replaced with payment for human time. For example, book authors often make more money from lecture fees and consulting than from royalties, so the lack of a system for collecting the royalties should be no big deal. I agree 99% with Esther.
Even though the cost of information will be driven down to almost zero, the authors will still have to receive some compensation for high-value information (my 1% disagreement). The solution involves microtransactions, where the user has to pay the information provider some small amount of money (e.g., 5 cents) for each information object used. Microtransactions need extremely low overheads (you can't spend 32 cents collecting a 5 cent charge) and they are thus well suited for computers as long as a simple billing service is available. No credible billing service exists on the Internet today for microtransactions, but I predict the emergence of one within a very short amount of time.
Once the Internet solves these three problems, it will be unbeatable due to its basic advantages: dynamic, open development of new features, cross-platform protocols, and a huge world-wide user pool.