CyberTech Rambler

June 4, 2008

Did British Library outlive its usefulness?

Filed under: Uncategorized — ctrambler @ 4:42 pm

Yes, I am cynical. For this post, I will even admit to be extremely cynical. Microsoft shut down its “Book Search” service, saying that it did not fit into its business strategy. I am wondering whether this has anything to do with the fact that OOXML had been approved as ISO standard and that Microsoft has no use for British Library anymore.

That “Book Search” does not fit into Microsoft’s business strategy is not surprising, since there is no strategy that one can see from day one. The whole thing seems to be a knee-jerk reaction to the similar effort by Google. Google, however, did have a strategy that everyone can see. Google wants to monetize the search for books. To do this, it will ensnare you by giving you access to books whose copyright has expired and it can give you for free. Who has all the books? Publishers? No. Libraries. Big libraries. They have books, some very old, but most importantly, they have access to other books. In UK, for example, there is a concept of
copyright libraries. For these libraries, they simply has to send a notice to any UK publishers, and the publishers are duty-bound to send them two copies of any book they published and is not out-of-print. British Library, Cambridge and Oxford University Library are three of the eight libraries with these privilege. Odds that they will get the books for Google (or Microsoft or anyone who asked) are good. That’s why both have dealing with one of these libraries.

I saw Google Book search in action once, when I was looking for a book. It was a still a copyright protected book so I only have selected snippets, not the full book. Nevertheless I saw its potential. It gave me more information than Amazon ever did, and with that information I am more confident that the book meets my need and therefore more likely to buy the book over the internet (and Google hopes that in this process, it gets a cut of my purchase). To give me this confidence, Google is not afraid of taking on publishers who did like their book digitized this way. Google believe it is using their books under “fair dealing” provision (and I agree) and is not afraid of taking on lawsuits by publishers to prove its point. Although Google’s reasons for doing so is a selfish one, i.e., sell more advertising, it benefits mankind including me.

I cannot say anything about Microsoft’s “book search” strategy because the only thing I know is that it is a clone of Google’s effort and that Microsoft is bending over backwards to publishers on not digitizing their books. I am sure the latter is an business strategy to differentiate itself from Google and hopefully get more cooperation from publishers in order to compete with Google. However, as one of Microsoft’s potential customers, the strategy is fatally flawed. The very lenient opt out facility means it will fail to give me the full universe of available books. For a search engine, this is rather fatal. Sure, MS Book Search search universe is going to be better than that of individual publishers’. However, as a consumer, which will you choose, to search the full universe, or to search a subset of it.

I know that British Library is not that stupid to be substantially damaged by Microsoft withdrawal. This New York Times article simply prove it to me that this is the case. If any, I know that the British Library will open its archive to anyone, provided copyrights law permits it. There will be a heavy price to pay if it sign an exclusive deal with any one company for rights to its archive. Being a public body with a mandate to be open, it is not even inclined so sign such a deal.

Do I believe the British Library had benefited from Microsoft Book Search? Yes I do. Some research on how to scans the books, especially those precious rare books would had been conducted using Microsoft money to say the least.

What did Microsoft gets out of it? One of it is of course having British Library contribute one person to ECMA OOXML committee to give it “legitimacy”. The said person even went on to drum up support for OOXML. Now that OOXML is an ISO Standard, may be Microsoft do not need British Library anymore…

Is the timing of this Microsoft’s announcement coincidence? It probably is. However, I am a cynic. Full stop.

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