Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Misunderstood? West Publishing as Content Provider

I read with interest this morning, Simon Chester's interesting post on SLAW about Thomson Reuters' Bold Leap to become a software company. It's an interesting piece that gives additional perspective on the announcements TR made at the recent blogger event in St Paul and blogged about by many worthy commentators, such as +Jean O'Grady, +Jason Wilson and +Greg Lambert, to name a few.

The over-arching theme of the reactions to TR's announcement that they now see themselves primarily as a "software solutions" company as opposed to a "content" company is that this is a departure from what West Publishing once was. While I agree the announcement is significant, it's also an interesting glimpse into their own self-image problems.

While it is true that on the surface, West has always been primarily a "content" company, there's a significant misunderstanding about exactly what that means in the context of West Publishing Company. Most observers, lawyers and librarians tend to see West as the producer of the National Reporter System, Digests and Westlaw as their bread and butter. And because each product is so large, it's easy to see them as the primary things they do, produce content. Encyclopedias, treatises, and educational materials pale in volume so seem minor within the West universe of business. It appears that West has always seen themselves in this light, too.

But if you look more closely at their catalog over the years, the most significant product of all is rarely mentioned or given the light of day. While the National Reporter System made West's millions and billions, it would have failed without a method for using the materials. From the start, West's Topic and Key Number System was the thing that actually made the reporters useable and made the company a success. At the turn of the 19th Century Chancellor James Kent complained about the proliferation of case law proclaiming that so many cases were being published that it was driving our legal system into ruin. The rise of the great treatises and encyclopedias of that century were partly a response to that general complaint. West Publishing in its early days was all about publishing more cases, not fewer, so there needed to be tools that facilitated the use of the case law. The Topic & Key Number System and Digests provided the indexing needed to make the case law accessible.  All the secondary materials that West produced over the years were crucial commentary that gave sense to the mass of cases produced by West.

The content produced by West, all the primary case law and statutes was not West's main product at all, it was their indexing, commentary and, later, computer algorithms (squirrelly as the are!) that facilitated lawyers and scholars access to the primary law that they needed. There are twelve million published cases. The fact is, without systems and services that facilitate their use, simply publishing twelve million cases is worthless. Therefore, West's main product over the years, wasn't primary law, or even the secondary materials, it was their indexing structure and systems that made that primary law useful.

Perhaps West was a service company all along and just didn't know it.... All along, West has been fighting with potential competitors who came along and tried to publish the cases. They defended their pagination in attempt to strengthen their hegemony in the field of publication of case law when all along it wasn't really their strong suit: it was their finding tools.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Future of Primary Law

West's (OK, Thomson Reuters, technically, but it will always be West to me) announcement that they are shifting focus on becoming a legal software/services company rather than a being primarily a content "creator," should send a chill throughout the law community.

 +Jason Wilson's excellent blog post summarizing the goings on the TR blogger's summit got me thinking about the consequences if West's commitment to creating content actually does become a lower priority. While it's true that more and more primary law is becoming available via "free" websites and services, the quality of these materials is actually poor compared to the quality of the materials produced by West (or Lexis, Fastcase, etc.). Careful editing and indexing of judicial opinions that premium vendors provide is incomparable in the "free law" world.

While I applaud the efforts of the Free Law movement, in my opinion, there is too little attention being paid to be sure that the free law is of useful quality. After all, even the Durham Statement-movement fails to provide digital content that's useful beyond simply finding an particular article and then printing it or reading it. Virtually all digital commons and digital sources of primary law function in the same way: if you know the opinion (or article) that you want to read, they work great. But if you try to find a case (or article) on a specific topic, you need to use a resource behind a pay wall, because none of the Free Law resources provide indexing, metadata that facilitate's online searching.

At the present, Westlaw, LexisNexis, +Fastcase, HeinOnline, Bloomberg Law and a few others are the only ones building digital content that is actually useful for online researchers. Other free sources do what they do as well as can be expected, but concepts such as federated searching across free online law reviews, digital commons, state supreme court websites, etc., virtually non existent.

This is the greatest crisis that I see facing the the legal profession, and especially law librarians today: Insuring that digital content produced by amateurs is useful. This is one thing that tech services librarians can work on: creating new levels of description, classification and meta data to online resources that may make disparate digital resources accessible through the use of federated search engines that are yet to be developed.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Challenges of Mining Case Citations from Law Review Articles

The previous post was written two weeks ago. And I've been working primarily with Paul Deschner of the HLSL Innovation Lab to design an algorithm that can mine cases from a full text law review database. There are some interesting challenges in doing this.

We've been able to acquire test files with which to perform test searches and here are some of the interesting challenges that we've come up against. First off, we've discovered that the uniform system of citation to case law, which we take for granted today did not exist prior to its widespread adoption in the mid-1930's. Case names were not very regular using the "v." or "vs." between party names. In fact, I've found many footnotes where both forms were used in the same footnote! Designing an algorithm to capture all cases depends on knowing all forms of case citations. For early law reviews, this may present some tricky challenges. In addition to case names with "v." or "vs." we also need to account for other case names, such as "in re".

But, because we're trying to not only find case citations, but to also use the citations to link to the cases themselves, we also need to account for where the case's citation actually falls within the writing. For example, it's fairly common for cases discussed in an article to be mentioned by name in the text of the article, with the citation to the case in the footnote. Linking the name with the citation, so the case itself can be used in some way poses a challenge.

Another challenge is the common use of short form citations to cases. We hope to design our database so that it will rank cases by the numbers of times that it's been referred to in each article and in other articles. The use of short form names means that when we identify a citation, we'll need to design an algorithm that can identify later references to the case, even when the full name is not used. This can be tricky when the short form is either a common name or word, or even when it's not even comprised of a party name....

I've also began to notice two additional factors that present challenges. First, it was fairly common to include tables of cases in law reviews and journals. This could be very helpful in designing our algorithm, or it can present a large challenge. Tables of cases are given a variety of titles in the journals, such as Table of Cases Discussed or, simply Tables of Cases. Sometimes the cases are even listed in indexes that were once regularly published for each volume. When cases are listed in indexes, they are sometimes listed by jurisdiction or court, making the task of identifying the cases cited in articles tricky since we're looking for numbers of times cases are discussed as well as whether they're cited at all.

Another interesting challenge that I hadn't anticipated is the practice among many law reviews and journals (what's the difference between a law review and a law journal, any way?), to run a regular feature usually called something like a "Survey of Recent or Notable" cases. These surveys usually discuss cases in very brief form and amount to abstracts of cases that the law review editors feel are noteworthy for one reason or another. It seems that cases merely mentioned in regular surveys of recent cases don't qualify as "leading" cases. Therefore, references to these cases should probably be discounted.

A New Mode of Full-text Case Retrieval - a work in progress

[This past academic year, John Palfrey, Professor of Law, Vice Dean, Library and Information Resources, Faculty Co-Director, Berkman Center For Internet and Society at Harvard Law School, was intrigued by an idea that I’ve been kicking around for several years and invited me to come to Harvard to work on it.

With the support of an incredibly talented staff in my home library, I felt comfortable taking a semester off. And so, I am visiting, as an Academic Fellow at Harvard Law School Library’s Innovation Lab for the 2011 fall semester.]

Designing a Solution to a Problem
The project that I’ve been asked to explore has to do with the inherent challenges of conducting case law research using full text online databases. The working title of the project is “Leading Case Service” and is designed to make online case law research more productive and more efficient. There are three factors that make online case law research very difficult.

First is the size of the database. It is estimated that there are approximately ten million published cases in the American legal system. The size of the database alone poses very serious difficulties for designers of search engines and indexing systems, both digital and analog.

The size of the corpus of case law in the American legal system isn’t merely the result of our society’s litigious nature. Prior to the mid-nineteenth century, the publication of cases was done very judiciously. Most cases were published in selective case reporters that only published leading cases. In fact, the most influential American case reporter in the nineteenth century was the predecessor to what we know today as American Law Reports, or ALR, and it only published cases of some particular significance, either because the opinion made a ruling on a novel aspect of the law or clarified an issue that had been dealt with by many courts with varying outcomes. In the late nineteenth century, the West Publishing Company entered the case law publishing market and effectively turned cases into a commodity. The method by which West published cases was virtually indiscriminate because it published any and all cases submitted to it by the courts. Its business model was founded on the premise that the more cases it could publish, the better; the more cases it could publish, the more volumes it could sell.

As the volume of cases it published grew, West developed an elaborate subject indexing system to help researchers. We know the indexing system as the Key Number System, and the index as the West Digest System. Today, the index alone numbers several thousand volumes! Coupled with Shepard’s citations, the digest and case-verification systems helped researchers identify both cases that were useful and those that were “still good law,” in the sense that they hadn’t been specifically overruled by another court. This system was extremely accurate, thorough, and objective but still left the researcher with a serious problem of having to wade through a substantial mass of material. The comprehensiveness of the West National Reporter System, its Digests and Shepard’s meant that the cases discovered on any one particular topic could number in the thousands.

The enormous volume of case law poses difficulties for researchers for another reason. Important research in the field of information science that explains that, due to the vagaries of language and other empirical laws of linguistics, full text database searching is by definition inefficient, even in databases filled with documents of a professional nature and highly specialized vocabulary, such as law. Studies have shown that the best a full text search engine is capable of retrieving amounts of only about twenty percent of the relevant documents on a topic. With 10 million published cases, even a 20% efficiency yields far more cases than any person can reasonably be expected to read.

Second, full text databases are objective search tools. This makes full text case law databases very difficult places for researchers to go to find answers about the law. For instance, let’s say you want to know what the law is on the rights of grandparents to intervene in custody proceedings in dissolution cases. A search for cases on this topic, if done with absolute precision, may yield dozens, if not hundreds, of cases, not what you really want or need. In this instance, a more useful approach would be to consult secondary sources, such as handbooks or treatises, that not only discuss the leading cases in the field but also summarize and analyze what these cases mean to the practitioner. Full text case law databases themselves are only part of what researchers need to complete their research.

Third, in order for online databases to be efficiently used, each document, as well as its sections, parts, words, letters, etc., should be indexed and tagged with what’s known in the computing world as meta-data. Indexing on this scale is massive and extremely complex but can make the development of search engines designed to work with these huge databases much more efficient. This is why Westlaw’s and Lexis’s search engines are so useful. Each company runs the full text of each case contained in their databases through extensive indexing and tagging. Part of this process eliminates repetitive words that have no legal meaning, such as articles, conjunctions, etc. Further, the content of the cases is divided into sections, such as majority and minority opinions, jurisdictions, etc., that dramatically helps narrow the search results. Indexing and tagging on this scale is a very costly venture, leaving only Lexis and Westlaw dominating the field. The process also is so complex that each company’s processes are highly guarded trade secrets. The Lexis and Westlaw case law databases are comprised entirely of public domain materials, but they still are extremely expensive to use. Each company cites the high cost of thorough indexing, tagging and sorting as a rationale to charge high prices for access.

A Solution to a Problem
The “Leading Case Service” may be a means of leveling the playing field for newcomers to the online database market, or for existing services that offer access to case law for free. The theory behind the project is that among the ten million cases in the American legal system, there is a relatively small percentage of cases that are considered more significant and interesting than the rest. If these cases can be identified and a search tool developed to exploit them, it may make searching case law more efficient by helping researchers focus on the most important cases first, before moving into the vast body of case law to find newer cases, cases with variant facts or those more specific to a specific jurisdiction.

The first step is to determine if there is such a thing as a group of “leading cases” and, if there is, to figure out how to find them and use them. The theory at present is that this group of cases can be found in the body of secondary materials. Initially, I thought that we could find leading cases in footnotes and body of treatises, presuming that treatise writers would discuss or cite to only the most important cases in their fields. To gather this group of leading cases, we could “mine” treatises and discover the cases cited in them. However, there are significant challenges to mining treatises for the cases the authors have cited, not the least of which is that treatises are published in many different formats and by enough publishers to make it difficult to use a single system to acquire the desired information. I’ve been convinced to put this step on hold; at least for the moment.

Our thinking at present is that we may have better luck focusing our efforts on cases cited in law review articles. There are two reasons that we think that law review articles may be better sources with which to discover this body of leading cases. First, we presume that the writers of law review articles as experts in their fields, are vigilant in identifying important cases in those fields and that overall, these scholars will discuss all the important cases in American law. I realize that this is a strong presumption, but over the last century, virtually all significant developments in law have been discussed and debated at length in law reviews and law journals. It follows, then, that the cases cited by the writers should be the ones most important or significant for one reason or another and can be identified as “leading cases,” those that researchers should read or at least be aware of when researching case law in that field.

A second advantage of using law review articles to identify leading cases is that the body of scholarship is continually expanding. If my theory is correct and we can discover this body of case law, we may be able to create an automated process that will continually add to the corpus of leading cases.

There are many questions to be answered. The most interesting question, and the one that I’ll be spending my time exploring initially is, exactly how many cases are cited by law review articles?

We know that there are around ten million cases published in total, but we don’t know what percentage of those cases found their way into the footnotes and text of law review articles. We are very close to obtaining the tools to answer this question conclusively. Hunches about the percentage of cases discussed in law reviews ranges from 5% to less than 1%, between 100,000 and 500,000 cases. If this is true, then full text case law database searching should be greatly improved by the mere fact that the researcher would be searching in a database of two or three hundred thousand cases instead of ten million!

Assuming that our initial tests reveal that there is, indeed, a body of leading cases that we can identify, many interesting possibilities emerge. The cases themselves may be ranked based upon the numbers of law reviews or journals that have cited them. (This is sort of a twist on Shepard’s service for law review articles. Instead of Shepardizing articles to find cases that cite to the articles, we’re looking for cases cited in the articles themselves.) Other information that may help rank the value of the cases includes the standing of the journal itself in which the article is published, or the reputation, publishing record or school of residence of the author.

Even if we are successful in identifying this corpus of leading cases, we have yet to determine how they should be used. The options are to create a separate database or to use meta-data to tag, or identify the cases so that search engines will be able identify the leading cases from among the rest of the millions of cases in the corpus of American law. Depending on the tags used, the researcher can use this information to sort search results in interesting and valuable ways. For example, a researcher desiring to know what is the law in an area novel to him, could begin with a full text case law database and immediately identify the most important cases in the field. After perusing these cases, links and metadata could then be used to immediately find articles, blogs and other pertinent online materials.

The goal of the project is to create a new way of using online digital legal materials. New technologies have allowed us to think of combining information in ways that were unheard of, even unthinkable, before today. “Leading Case Service” is essentially a ‘mash-up’ of online case law databases and online databases of law review articles. To this mash-up, colleagues have suggested that we may be able to add blogs, digital commons, wire-services, websites, legal periodical indexes and possibly treatises. The use of this information is not merely academic. It may also prove to be a way to power new search engines or discover new ways that various parts of the conceptual, scholarly world of the law influence each other.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Waiting for the Other Shoe to Drop

I'm baffled by publishers' arrogance these days. Two recent events made me whack my head with the palm of my hand….

Law Journal Seminars Press is now rolling out a "fantastic" new program for their books. Instead of merely paying for the looseleaf supplements for their books (for the most part reasonably priced, by the way), we can now either opt to receive them in print and online, or online only. Print and online, of course, costs more than the print supplements alone. Online only costs about the same.

I'm in an academic law library and online has absolutely no interest for me - or my patrons. Apparently, each title would have to have a separate login. So, if I did opt for either option, I'd need to keep track of the various passwords for each title. Good grief. I can't imagine a more inconvenient process.

We're canceling all Law Journal Seminars Press titles.

The other situation is even more annoying. And it always has been. We subscribe to the Economist ($138/year) and route it among the faculty and put the routed one in the faculty lounge. They've got a pretty nice online service with email alerts, etc., and we looked into getting an online subscription. After six months, they finally got back to us with a "fantastic" deal: $1500 per year for online access for our library. Are they mad? Do they really think that only one person reads our single subscription to the print version?

Come to think of it, I wonder why they don't charge volume rates for the print version any way?

Actually, I'm pretty sure that that's coming….

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Where are the Catalogers? Proposed Amendment to the Durham Statement

Reflecting on the character of the Durham Statement
As the scholarship becomes more widely available in digital formats, it is critical that we seek input from catalogers and technical services librarians on how to make these digital resources as useful and usable as possible.
I've been thinking about the meaning to legal researchers and legal bibliographers of the Durham Statement. It has occurred to me that there is a very important stake-holder/contributor is missing from the statement. The Statement involves aspirations that reflect observations and presuppositions about how we feel the future will affect the publication of modern legal scholarship. The observations and assumptions are well and good, and, at least partially true. (See my post, "Why I'm Signing the Durham Statement” 2/6/2010)
The Statement accurately reflects how technology is speeding the process of the digitization legal scholarship along and, therefore, calls on law schools to immediately and expeditiously cease publication of their journals in print in favor of digital formats. It presumes, of course, that technology is developing in such a way that researchers will prefer to access the information digitally, and, not only that the technology either exists, or will exist, but that it will be presented in a form that researchers can use. The two parties present in this scenario are researchers and technicians.

The missing party
The best technology available, in terms of readers, websites, formats, etc., and the scholarship it contains is only as good (to a large and very practical extent) as the form of the content itself. One of the advantages of print media was that it's very "artifactness" seemed to beg the question, but that it must be curated properly. That is, each item received into a library should be thoroughly analyzed and objectively described in order to facilitate discovery and access, and, hence, usage. Part of the nature of analog scholarship is its very permanence: once printed, its memorialized, it becomes an artifact. It is, thus, capable of objective description. This description, seen by cynics as bibliographic hypertrophy, is what we know as MARC, LC Classification and LC Subject Heading description. These descriptions and analyses made collection of, and access to library materials standard. Despite our cynicism, the system as a whole served/serves us well. RLIN and OCLC and the host of OPAC and serial automation vendors made access to collections remarkably easy, especially when compared to the alternatives. (Librarians simply storing materials as they see fit based on their own understanding of a subject, for instance.)
It is time to subject digitally produced, born digital scholarship to the same rigorous analysis. It is almost certainly the case that the old wineskins won't meet the needs of modern libraries. MARC record format, Library of Congress Classification and Subject Headings would likely all need to be modified or revised to served the needs of modern formats that aren’t physical or don’t possess the physical character of printed law review articles, for example. This new analysis would need to take advantage of things like metadata and hypertext links and would be less concerned, of course, with organizing the materials themselves, but could provide important tools to allow others to organize, use and access them
Whatever the exact format, form or nature, it is clear that production and distribution of born digital scholarship will benefit from systematic, standard analysis and bibliographic description. If each article of a born digital law review, journal or scholarly blog was subjected to standard bibliographic description and analysis, it could serve the user in many ways. First, it may facilitate the development of better search engines that mine this important form of legal scholarship. Second, it may also facilitate the creation of better, more secure storage formats. It would also bring thoughtful vigor to the process of digitization and make stability of formats not merely useful, but desirable to librarians and technicians.
The alternative of doing nothing and letting technology take care of itself results in relying on Google as a search engine. Google’s fine to an extent, but its functionality and reliability as a search engine is not consistent or reliable. Its quickness and ubiquity make it an easy thing thing to rely upon and use despite its limitations. With something so cheap and easy, it’s very easy to overlook its shortcomings. But as the volume of digital scholarship increases Google’s limitations may become more and more apparent and it may be harder for users to shrug off the annoyance of Google’s inherently sloppy indexing.

It's an easy conclusion that we must bring Technical Services to the table as we endorse (more or less) the migration from print to digital formats.

The Proposal
I don’t have specific language in mind for how the Durham Statement should be amended or supplemented. It would be something to the effect that the signatories commit to involving TS departments and experts in the process of digitization of their law reviews.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A New Form of Cheeseburger: Modern Technology & the Development of the Next Generation of Secondary Materials

[With due thanks to Jason Wilson's brilliant post, "Secondary Materials are Like Cheeseburgers," I propose below, a concept of how law librarians, law review editors, scholars and bloggers can cooperate and build a better (well, new!) cheeseburger. These are random thoughts. I welcome feedback. RL]

The recipe:
Take Web 2.0 + Digital Commons + Durham Statement; Combine them, process until well-done and place between slices of WWW, Web 2.0 and app-technology.

The Next Generation of Secondary Materials
It is generally understood that secondary materials serve two very important purposes (beyond earning money for publishers and money and prestige for authors): First, a secondary resource, such as a treatise, practice material, looseleaf or scholarly article, provides users with clear statements of the meaning and application of the legal principles or concepts that are reflected in court opinions, statutory and administrative materials. They are essentially syntheses of rules and ideas expressed in these disparate resources, which are created and published by necessarily disparate entities for necessarily disparate audiences with necessarily disparate interests.
Second, they provide important indexing of these disparate resources through citation and analysis of the various materials. For example, if you are interested in finding the most significant cases that explain the difference between civil and criminal contempt, one need only read the relevant chapter of Wright and Miller’s Federal Practice and Procedure, because it is there that recognized experts in the field not only express their opinions as to those differences, but they also provide citations to the authorities that support their conclusions and analysis. Indeed, there may well be more cases available on the topic, but we trust that the ones cited by the authors of this treatise are the most important and most significant.

As publishers grapple with a variety pressures from shareholders and corporate boards as well as with changes in the technology and practical aspects of publishing, they have tended to respond with practices and policies that have actually served to run contrary to their underlying function which is to offer research tools to lawyers, students, practitioners and lay people who come to them for answers to pressing legal questions. Instead of, as once was the case, of serving the legal community by offering helpful tools and distributing them as widely as possible, they are narrowing their distribution to customers who can and must pay.

It is my opinion that several recent advances in “technology” generally can provide us with a new mode of secondary materials that may be as useful as traditional secondary materials, but that may be available for free for all.

The New Mode of Secondary Legal Materials
OK, here's the idea. What we're seeking is modern indexing to help the researcher focus on the most important cases - and, if possible clear commentary about what the cases mean.
Law review articles and blogs can give us a glimpse of which cases are important by examining which cases are written about and mentioned in articles and blogs. It is possible that wire services, too, can help identify which cases are important by analyzing the frequency with which cases are reported and commented upon. (There are significant problems with using data on cases reported in commercial media sources, but the problems can be accommodated for in various ways.)
The proliferation of digital law reviews in digital commons and services like SSRN, as well as articles and commentary on blogs can provide the substance for building a free database that consists of analysis of primary materials and commentary on policies and procedures.

Given the disparate forms of materials that are readily available on the web already, it is my opinion that new technology can be developed that can efficiently mine them to give researchers valuable information as they conduct research on any topic. Essentially, this new form of research tool would aggregate material from many sources, index them and offer searching and sorting in forms and of the most benefit to researchers.

In order for such as project to be successful, several foundational things should happen:

1. Law reviews should adopt the practice of asking authors to not only supply abstracts of articles, but should tag them with an approved list of subjects headings. They should also agree to tag digital articles with metadata that accurately reflects author and copyright information.

2. An approved list of metadata tags could also be circulated among bloggers and periodicals that produce digital editions.

3. Articles should be mined for citation data, including references to cases, courts, judges, scholars, etc.

4. Search results should be able to be ranked based on a variety of factors, including reputation and productivity of the authors and citation frequency.

5. Full text of cases should be indexed by computer and archived in a secure location. Search results should be available either as full text or as citation lists.

Fantasy or Possibility?
Is it possible to build a research tool that aggregates and searches information from such disparate sources? What’s more, what will such a service look like, and will it actually be valuable to researchers?
It is clear that collectively, blogs, law reviews, digital commons and various websites that report and comment upon legal matters cover a substantial portion of the most important cases of the day. A systematic method of crawling and indexing this content should provide researchers with a viable starting point for researching any current legal topic.
With Google Scholar and efforts on the part of law reviews and digital commons to build retrospective collections of secondary materials, the potential exists to build a rich, publicly accessible free resource.
Looking forward, legal scholars and other experts may endeavor to regularly comment upon breaking cases and other developments, thus providing a continuing source of present commentary about modern legal matters.
Modern developments in AJAX and HTML5, as well as new functionality of apps on iOS and Android platforms and their respective hardware platforms have the potential for the development of entirely new research tools. Unlike the present generation of online databases that are essentially flat text files built from print treatises, these new tools can give people access to a new concept of secondary materials in ways that would have been hard to imagine just a few years ago.
We’ve often heard of the difficulty of building a better mouse trap. Is it possible to build a better cheeseburger?


Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Reflections on the End of the World Wide Web and the Future of the Internet as an Information/Service Resource

[This post is in an essay written in preparation for the December 10, 2010, Episode 16 of "Law Librarian Conversations," a podcast about all things law library.... This week's podcast with guests Tom Boone, Reference Librarian, Loyola Law School; Jason Wilson, Vice President Jones McClure Publishing; Ed Walters, CEO, Fastcase.

If you are reading this before Friday, 12/10, you can join us by clicking on this link:

Title: LawLibCon 16 - Future of Interface Design (12/10/2010)
Date: Friday, December 10, 2010
Time: 2:00 PM - 3:00 PM CST
After registering you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the Webinar. Follow the conversation in the chat room during the live broadcast athttp://lawlibcon.classcaster.com/chat.

Subscribe to LawLibCon on iTunes here: http://u.cali.org/2jwf . Enough shameless self-promotion.... RL]


I've been fascinated recently by a new trend in consumer use of the internet.

The internet itself has remained pretty stable as a continuing backbone for the electronic exchange of information. It has been surprisingly robust and scalable. Embarrassingly, I was one of those people who, in the early 1990's was predicting that the internet would soon break from the volume of usage as it spread from academic to commercial users. At the time, it seemed that as usage - especially, graphical intense usage - would fill the capacity of routers and cables of our national infrastructure. Surprise, surprise. Hardware manufacturers and ISPs have somehow figured out to meet the demand. (And have they ever….)

But while the internet backbone has scaled up and provided one and all with (potential) capacity for the mammoth amounts of bandwidth. A well wired home could (does?) have a wireless access point that supports at least ten simultaneous devices on the same router at speed and capacity to allow all ten users to stream music while surfing the web with several tabs open.

So the internet itself supports surprisingly intense usage. But the people who make money on the sale of this usage are the ISPs. What about the information providers who provide the information or services that consumers use? In order for content and service providers to make money for their information or services, they need two things: Unique, high quality information or services, and, eyeballs. Service or information providers either make money on the information that they sell to users, or they give their information or services away for free and sell advertising to others. This much is obvious. It's also the great challenge of being in business on the internet.

Either way, the vendor has a vested interest in holding the users' attention as long as possible. One way that they are doing that is by creating new "platforms" for access to, or usage of information or services available on the internet. If you think about it, this basic concept underlies nearly all recent developments in cyber-business. The creation of the iOS and its use of apps to access the internet was one of the very first examples of a way to lure users away from the wide-open world wide web and into a world where use of the internet was now carried out completely from within an application. This provided us with excellent, robust access to and usage of the information or services, while at the same time, keeping us in that very location for focused, discreet periods of time.

But as Mobile Safari began to become a major source of internet activity, other service and information providers began to see the potential for customized, focused internet experience. Google keeps developing more and more products and services and makes them available for free to all-comers - and yet makes billions. And they make that money without ever sending you a bill! The strategy is simple, get users to click into the world of Google for search, mail, documents, RSS feeds, phone, etc.; And keep them there! Google is striving to extend their reach even further by developing its mobile platform, Android and its forthcoming operating system, ChromeOS. Once in the Google world, a user will be able to stay in that world. FaceBook, too, making plays to become the one-stop source of all your internet life and activity.

Developments such as these may ultimately serve to make the intent a series of walled gardens where users can't easily move from one application or platform at will, at least not easily. Examples of how fine these walled gardens have become can be seen in two recent announcements of publishing ventures which have begun entirely as applications on the iPad. For example, Rupert Murdoch's announcement of the creation of an iPad based newspaper called "The Daily," and Richard Branson's new magazine called, "Project." The Daily isn't yet released (as of this writing) but Project is. And it is stunning in nearly every respect. It's beautiful, packed with features and utility. But it is limited in one important respect.

Even if I wanted to share with you the wonderful cover story in Project, I couldn't. First off, there is no URL. Second, even if I could, somehow send you a link to the article, because Project was developed on an app built especially for the iPad, you need one in order to view it. And there's no end in sight. Such applications are bound to appear in all major platforms.

The irony is that well-executed applications provide outstanding experience for the user and many people prefer the experience of browsing Twitter, Facebook, RSS feeds and databases through available apps over accessing the same information with a browser.

What's a developer to do? The hope, from a user's point of view is that developers will focus their efforts on building good services and databases and make them available on every available platform. It is also important for a new system of link locators be developed so that links from within a ChromeOS application will be able to find the same article or information in an iOS application or from within a browser.

Such challenges are so subtle and nuanced as to be nearly invisible today. Tomorrow they may well be extreme obstacles for cross-platform use and may make today's successful platform the preferred one for distribution of tomorrow's information and services….