Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Live Academic: Crank Up The Volume

Few publishers would limit themselves to selling or distributing through one outlet when there were multiple routes to customers on offer at zero incremental cost. Microsoft, as the second guest to the party, recognizes this and is at pains to present that they will accept digital files from publishers or scan titles in a manner that creates no additional costs to publishers.

With their nascent book program, Microsoft – the big bully of yore - is defined relative to the incumbent but doesn’t court that comparison to their advantage. Microsoft has attempted a stealth approach in gaining publishers’ attention and cooperation via direct communication and visits and presentations rather than a more aggressive marketing and public relations program. At least that’s my explanation for their rather meek entrĂ©e into the digital book space. It will be interesting to see the level of interest in their presentations at BookExpo later this month. If the meeting I attended at London Bookfair is any indication where there were less than 30 people in attendance this could be another missed opportunity for Microsoft.

Microsoft need to court some controversy in order to draw attention to themselves. They also need to exhibit deeper knowledge and understanding of the publishing industry: Both the simple mechanics of the industry and the quixotic issues such as the inter-house struggles over international rights which are particularly relevant with respect to electronic content.

The Microsoft personnel involved in the Live Academic program all need to understand this material rather than just the front man. Google also took a long time to learn this lesson believing that their people were so smart they could fake it but this attitude was taken for arrogance and things got off to a bad start. The improvement was evident at London where the 60 min overview presentation of Google Book placed the program in the context of the industry and with the issues the industry faces. A second panel discussion leaned heavily on publisher experiences and Google barely needed to speak to get the positive point across. In contrast, the Microsoft presentation seemed to run out of gas after 15mins or so. The features are impressive but the delivery isn’t emphatic. In answer to a question about upcoming features, Microsoft diverged into a 10min presentation of the NYT e-reader product – interesting - but not on point.

Microsoft Live Search has over 30,000 titles available (once it officially launches) and the titles are displayed in a two pane system. The page layout is functionally more appealing than GBS. Moreover the user is easily able to export segments of highlighted text, link to abstracting and index products and citation services such as bibtext.

Microsoft is also emphasizing that the program is conducted with the full cooperation with publishers: Meaning they are not scanning books where the copyright is ‘in transition’ (in the words of Google). To support this emphasis on the publisher, the company designed what amounts to a publisher platform to manage the content in the Live product. Via this ‘platform’ publishers can set the level of preview rights in three ways: 1) percent viewable, 2) pages forward and back, or 3) contextual snippets. The publisher can also set territorial rights as well – geographic locations – all of which are assignable on a per-book basis. Not foregoing my earlier comment about understanding the industry, Microsoft seems to have recognized that the book is a unit of component parts and have made the permissions process so flexible that the publisher can even set rights for an image or table in a specific book.

The publisher also gets marketing and promotional options that enable branding (logos), promotional programs (links, coupons), commerce applications for ‘buy the book’ activities and links to online retailers. An appreciation of the importance of metadata to discovery also percolates and the company decided to license bibliographic data from a leading source and also capture the book text in multiple ways to ensure the rendition of the book was accurate and that the text was indexed appropriately. Scans are held in hi and low res images and the text is fully indexed and sits ‘behind’ the image. Current OCR technology is not sophisticated enough to replicate complicated page layouts that incorporate call outs, high lighted text, block quotes and the like. All of this gets scrambled via OCR. (The text of the title is captured in reflowable xml).

Microsoft suggest they want consumers to find books in places they wouldn’t ordinarily find them which is in search results and have made the point to publishers that the Microsoft program is another outlet for promotion and perhaps sale of their content. Regardless of the sound of this pleasant and appealing message it is far too quiet and what Microsoft should do is raise the volume. Google is bound to release a version 2.0(beta) of GBS shortly and would look to incorporate some of the best features of Live Academic. What will the message from Microsoft be then? My suggestion is to open up the content and allow web service and api access to the book content (with publisher approval of course). After all, who really wants a second closed content platform comprising similar if not duplicative stuff? Courting ‘controversy’ may be another way of gaining attention but I think that’s what Microsoft Live needs.

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