Carl Malamud: Internet Talk Radio, flame of the Internet.
Malamud: This is Geek of the Week. We’re talking with Dale Dougherty who’s the publisher of GNN, the Global Network Navigator. He’s a staff member at O’Reilly & Associates, has been with the O’Reilly & Associates since they began publishing obscure books on UUCP and managing Usenet. Welcome to Geek of the Week, Dale.
Dale Dougherty: Thank you. Glad to be here.
Malamud: You’re the publisher of GNN. Why don’t you tell us what would GNN is.
Dougherty: Global Network Navigator… Well, perhaps if I start off saying we thought it would be cool to have an online magazine that was distributed over the Internet. And we started with that idea in early ’93. And as we started putting it together it sort of grew into more than just a magazine, and so we started calling it an information center. And in that information center we have about four publications.
We have a news weekly, and the primary focus of the news weekly is to publish announcements, let people know about new services that’re coming on to the onto the Internet.
Then we have a magazine, which is what our original idea was. And it was to develop stories, take a theme, take a focus such as the government and the Internet; our second issue will be education and the Internet, what going on. So we have a broader canvas with which to work and a little more stable timeframe, meaning quarterly there for the magazine.
And then the third publication is the Whole Internet Catalog. And many of—
Malamud: Which is Ed Krol’s book.
Dougherty: Right. We took the catalog portion of the Krol book and we’re already starting to maintain it for new additions to the book. And we really expanded it and put it online so that we could really serve as an index to information services that are available on the network. So something like if you are a biologist and you can come to the Whole Internet Catalog, look up under “biology” and see what information services are out there. And not only read about them but connect to—using Mosaic and the Web—to that actual service out there.
Malamud: So you’ve taken the directory part of Ed Krol’s book and instead of saying “You could FTP over to this site” you just put a little link in there [crosstalk] and then somebody actually—
Dougherty: Right. And in many ways it’s completely transparent to the user whether it’s a Gopher or an FTP or a Web site that they’re linking to.
Malamud: Okay. Well let’s go through those pieces one by one. We brought you on the show not just as a shameless plug for one of our sponsors, but actually since you’re building a business on the Internet it’s interesting to see what an online magazine information center is gonna look like. You’ve got a newsweekly, does that mean you have reporters that work for you that’re going out there looking for news?
Dougherty: Well, primarily we have an editorial staff. And are we’re in the process of growing sort of a reporting staff of sort of freelancers and people on staff. Pretty much know our editorial staff is looking at things out there and trying to… You know, what happens on the Internet in terms of these information outfits, you actually hear of them you know, “Come to the net if you follow the right thing,” but often people put up a neat service and they say “Here it is.” They don’t tell you anything about it. So, a lot of what we do in the newsweekly is to just simply go out, find the service, look through and say you know, on the whole these are the interesting things about this service and give it some character and talk to the people who’s putting it up why are they doing this. How long will it be up. Sort of the background on a lot of the services is something that we’re trying to make part of the foreground.
Malamud: So your newsweekly is about the net. You’re not going to some company press conference where they’re appointing a new vice president of sales and reporting on that.
Dougherty: No. No. These publications are all aimed at Internet users for really— You know, we use the phrase we try to be like Triple A of the Internet, a place to go to get information about interesting things to do on the net, or where things are, how do I find out about neat things. Seems to me that on the Internet, if you join enough aliases and enough mailing list you’ll hear about things. What we kind of wanted to do is create a place where well, we’ll follow a lot of those lists and we’ll publish on a regular basis so that you can go into the news and say, “Oh, here are the new things that came on the net over the last two weeks or so.”
Malamud: Do you summarize newsgroups as well?
Dougherty: No, we don’t summarize—
Malamud: Because you could do something very valuable for me. If you could comp-priv on my behalf and just let me know once a month if something happens…
Dougherty: Well. That’s something— It’s an interesting direction because I think it’s one of the things that— You know, our perspective is what can a publisher do to add value on the Internet? Not exploit what’s there, but how can you add value and in a way that people will pay for that value. And I think digests are one of the key ways. It’s something what we’re looking into down the road. In the Whole Internet Catalog, for instance, we’re sort of starting this by appointing field editors. Someone to take the molecular biology topic and develop that as a…you know review the resources that are there and say these are good, these aren’t, follow new ones that are coming up. And also relate them to a broader world. Many of these resources, sometimes they’re put up without anyone behind them. Meaning just someone thought on a sunny day that it was a good idea to put them up. They’re not maintained, they’re not updated. You know. So part of the field editor’s job is to say well you know, this is an online version of this print source, perhaps, but it’s not actually sponsored by the print source, or there’s some relationship there that need to be made explicit.
Malamud: Okay, so you have the book, and there you have area specialists that track their areas. You have the newsweekly, and that’s kind of a flame of the day, interesting hack that I found. And the magazine seems to be in the middle. It’s a quarterly…is there a theme for each magazine?
Dougherty: As I said earlier, we’re trying to take a general topic like like education, like business, like government, and collect— We basically have three sources for news. Some is the original reporting where we’re hiring freelancers to write articles or people on staff; a lot of it’s staff-written. We also take articles that have—we try to get rights to articles that appear in print that we think have relevance to Internet users. In our first issue we had articles from The Nation and from New Republic that served as sort of political connections to the Internet. And the third source is to find information that’s already on the network that may either be…just it lacks context. It doesn’t have—you know, often when you look at some publications, what they’re doing is taking a speech or a collection of articles and putting them together in an interesting way and giving some context for what’s of interest. Perhaps it’s excerpting some of those articles, um—
Malamud: Sequencing information.
Dougherty: Yeah, yeah.
Malamud: Taking data and putting it in, saying right here are the relevant bits and here’s the order your oughta read ’em in.
Dougherty: Yeah. Exactly. So, you know, again it’s editorial that we’re trying to put together.
Our primary—in all three of these publications is saying you know, what we think we can do—what O’Reilly can do as company is good editorial. And by putting things together here we really want these publications to work on their own, apart from sort of the online delivery model. That’s just how we’re getting the bits to you, but we really think that the key to these being successful is having strong editorial content over time.
Malamud: Dale Dougherty, you mentioned ads, you mentioned making money. You’re a for-profit corporation. How do you intend to make money off of an online magazine? I mean, technically how can you know that?
Dougherty: Yeah. Well, a fourth publication which I didn’t mention was the GNN marketplace. So, that is where we’ve in some way segregated the advertising. We’ve looked at the publications here and said well, one way to do technical publications is to get a majority of your revenue from advertising. And given that we wanted to grow this market, we really wanted to find who’s out there and how do you get them used to reading magazines. We didn’t want to put a subscription fee, subscription charge, on the magazine itself. So we wanted to explore ways to get other kinds of funding, and advertising seemed like a suitable way to do that. Most technical publications are you know, 80 to 90% supported by advertising anyway, even if they’re…
Malamud: Well but your advertising is off to the side. When I read Computer World or Foo World or one of these things, I turn the page an d the ad hits me in the face. Are you doing that when I click on a mouse button, does an ad come up unexpectedly?
Dougherty: Well, no. What we’ve done is sort of two forms of advertising. One is the marketplace in which it’s basically a resource directory and you can put advertising there. And then in the publications themselves we really just have what we call referrals. We put an icon for the advertiser at the top of an article, or at the bottom we say you know “This article’s sponsored by so-and-so” and it contains a link which can put them into the marketplace and in into a particular document that the advertiser wants the reader to see.
But it is very much a choice-based advertising system. And the point of it really is traditional print advertising has usually an image and a punchline that will get you some initial attention. But it ends up at the end saying call an 800 number or send mail to this to get the full story. What we like to think we’re doing in GNN in terms of the advertising opportunity is to give the full story to the reader right there so that they have content, information about the product, real information not just the tagline. But they have real information about the product or service, and about the company. We encourage the advertisers to put up articles and things in that—we call those information centers or resource centers. We really think it’s an opportunity to communicate with your customers or potential customers about what you do.
Malamud: Well do the customers do that? Presumably you can track where people are going in your magazine. Do people look at the ads? More than once?
Dougherty: Yeah. We have tracking, which means when so— We haven’t discussed the technology, but generally in a server-based system you come in and request something of that server, so it keeps a log of what’s gone on there. Right now it just keeps track that such an article was requested. And on looking at the four publications, we have say about 15% of the traffic is in the marketplace. Which doesn’t make it is as big as the other three publications just say on a mon—you know, this is about on six to eight weeks’ experience. But we will be able to know, from the logging. And that’s something that traditional print advertising certainly can’t guarantee you. They can guarantee that so many people subscribe to that magazine, or pick it up at newsstands, but they can’t really tell you whether people are actually getting to that ad that you put in there.
Malamud: Are you being…too active here? Are you, by actually watching how the reader reads, are you invading his privacy? Is there such a thing as too active a magazine?
Dougherty: Mmm, it’s possible that some people would have concerns over it. I really think that what we’re doing is collective statistics. Nothing individual in terms of maintaining… It just doesn’t have any meaning to us, and I think for concerns of privacy we certainly wouldn’t want to explore whether an individual reader you know, likes this or that. But we do know you know, which…more…you’re looking for patterns. And we’re just starting off. You know, look through a complicated log of data and saying that for people that go from the table of contents to the introduction of an article, two thirds of those actually continue on to see the article itself. Things like that which tell you a bit about how you’re structuring your information. So I really don’t feel like we are saying you know, “Joe in Kansas like this kind of stuff and we’re gonna give him more of it.” I do think that there are areas for online publishing, however, if we knew more about you we might be able to give you choices among the information that would be meaningful to you. The technology isn’t there, but that’s something—
Malamud: Well let’s talk about the technology. What is your publishing platform? What do you put your GNN together with?
Dougherty: Yeah. Well, GNN is a World Wide Web application. Which basically means we’re using the specifications defined by the World Wide Web, and that’s something that originated at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland. Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau are the main developers of those specifications. In the United States of course, the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at Champaign, Illinois is the hotbed of web development. And what they’ve developed there are really powerful clients for Unix, PC, Windows, and Macintosh, as well as the server side.
Now, what is of significance to me in this client-server model of the Web is that as a publisher we simply run a server. And we actually run multiple servers. We’ve put them in different countries and different places where we think people can get are the information fairly easily. But the user chooses the tool that they want to use, whether it’s Mosaic, or there’s another browser from University of Kansas called Lynx which is an ASCII-mode browser. And so, we’re giving the user choices in terms of the functionality that they want in the browser, and there’s no reason not to assume that one day we’ll have commercial web browsers out there which have far more powerful interfaces than what we have now. But the data that we’re sending across the network can remain constant or be part of the specification. We don’t really write to a particular software program, we write to the specifications.
Malamud: What about the Web made that the attractive publishing platform? Why aren’t you using WAIS, or why didn’t you write your own server?
Dougherty: Well in fact we are using WAIS as well, but WAIS… To me the Web is a big step up from Gopher. And that’s probably the major point. In the Web, we are able to distribute documents, in a sense, that have styled text and graphics, and eventually sound and video. But we are able to really present a document model. We’re able to create these publications, they don’t look like menu choices and things like that [crosstalk] as they do in Gopher.
Malamud: It’s not just plain ASCII—
Malamud: It’s not menus and ASCII text.
Dougherty: Right. It’s styled fonts. We’re able to specify something about the structure of the information and its relationship from one document to another. So, it’s starting to look—at least from my point of view, it looked like the world I was familiar with in terms of publishing, in terms of having documents and moving from one document to another. And so, as a publisher we just set up the structure so that you can— You know, you have a table of contents, and you have the documents you want to get to, and you set up a design for the whole package. So I think it fit into the publisher’s needs. And that’s why we started using it. It’s not the end of where we want to be, but it was certainly a good place to start. The Web offers a navigational model based on hypertext, or this idea of being able to link from one place to another. Most hypertext programs to date manage their own namespace, which basically they define all those locations and they resolve the addresses. What was unique about the Web was that it had really a global namespace for link addressing, so that you could move from one document on one computer to another document on another computer, completely transparently. In fact—
Malamud: And so that’s the concept of the URL, right—
Malamud: The Universal Record Locator.
Dougherty: Right. And you know, it’s almost too transparent. I find—you know, when I’m giving a demo sometimes I want to stop, wave my hands and say, “Look, look. Do you realize you just went out to London, England to retrieve that list, or did you realize you just went over to Australia to get that document?” It just happens transparently in the system.
But the Web offers a navigational model, and I think we really need as well a search and retrieval model, and that’s what WAIS offers. So in fact you’ll see that in GNN we have a WAIS server running as well as a web server, so that you can type in a text string and get back a list of documents that contain a certain words.
Malamud: So what the user sees on this book interface of Mosaic or some other viewer is a bunch of text and pictures, and someplace there’s “enter keyword to search for?”
Dougherty: Right. Or there are links in the document, which they can contain…you know, that’s how they move from one document to another either through the search model or through the navigational model of hyperlinks.
Malamud: Dale Dougherty, the World Wide Web that you publish in with GNN has hypertext concepts, but it also has publishing concepts. I know you’ve made an intensive study of SGML and you’re using an SGML variant within the World Wide Web known as HTML. Could you tell us a little bit about how SGML and this World Wide Web variant relate to each other? Is this the same SGML we’ve heard talked about for the last ten or fifteen years by the publishing community?
Dougherty: Well HTML is best viewed as a minimal subset of SGML. SGML itself is…it’s like a specification for a language, and then you end up with— You know, what you end up actually working with is a language itself that you go in and you define it. So HTML is a limited language that allows us to define documents for purposes of distribution. We actually at O’Reilly keep the document in a more rich version of SGML, if you will, and we filter down into HTML.
Malamud: What do you lose? What’re some of the things you have internally that you can’t publish with?
Dougherty: Well, it’s not so much that we lose, we just don’t need them in the online version. We might be keeping—for instance the Whole Internet Catalog online, we have contact information, or we have an update history. You view it more as a database of information, and then there’s only some of this information that you want to publish in a particular medium.
Malamud: Okay, so that’s content that you’re not using. Are there stylistic indications, are there tricks you do on paper that you can’t do on the Web? You know, switch to italic, pull in a Greek character, center the following text.
Dougherty: Well there are lots of limitations certainly in the rendering on the Web. We can’t do two columns, for instance. We can’t do…you know, if you put up a graphic you basically lose all the horizontal space on that area unless you put up other graphics with it. So there are definitely problems there, or should we would say it’s not very rich, you know, when you look at say what you can do on a printed page. But that’s not necessarily an SGML problem, that’s simply we can identify the key elements in the document, and what we have are different browsers making rendering decisions out there that some make good ones, some make bad ones. Some will take the title of the document and put it right-justified at the top of a page, others will center it, and others will put it as part of the application information and it’s almost invisible. So there are different choices that browsers are making with it.
But in terms of— You know, getting back to the SGML, it’s something that’s important— We’re finding out— We’re trying to sorta lobby within the web communities to really try to respect the data specification here. If you author a document and all you do is pull up Mosaic and can look at it and say that looks fine on the screen, eventually that’s gonna hurt you or hurt the Web, I think, if we are so locked into a particular browser. What SGML is trying to say is here’s a common understanding of the structure of a document so that all browsers can process at least the structure the same way.
Malamud: So SGML is about the fact that this text is a title, not about the fact that titles are right or centered or left or a certain font or color.
Dougherty: Exactly. Something like a stylesheet mechanism is needed in the Web and is something we’re trying to develop to specify—to map the formatting instructions to the structural elements, such as mapping Helvetica Bold to fact that this is a title
Malamud: Dale Dougherty, you’re actually running a business on the Internet. We’ve been hearing for years about publishers. And they’ve been looking at SGML, they’ve been looking at online publishing, and they’re getting ready to go. Are the McGraw Hills and the Addison Wesleys, are those companies going to be the publishers on the Internet? Are they going to get on there? Or are you going to be the next McGraw hill? Are you eating their lunch, or are they about to step on top of you?
Dougherty: Well… One can’t really know that at this point. I think based on activity…you know, as a small publisher we’re doing a lot more than some of the larger companies out there. We think it’s very important to be involved right now when things like even the Web are emerging as important application frameworks. It’s important to have the input into the specifications that are being developed. It won’t be so easy to change some of these things a couple years hence.
My sense is the publishers don’t really want a close relationship to technology these days, and they don’t want to have their hands in it. And that’s the only way, I think, right now that you can get into online publishing via the Internet, is to go in and solve the problems yourself as much as you can and work with others cooperatively. It’s sort of unfortunate, because we’ve tried to work with other publishers I think in a way to encourage a view that this publishing technology ought to be something we share, by and large, and we compete based on the content. In other words what we’re actually delivering. But it’s in all of our interests to have browsers like Mosaic out there. To have an application framework in which the information passes transparently from one user to another in terms of the type of system that they’re using. If you look at this online publishing as an environment, they choose their own tools and it’s our job to deliver into that environment successfully. We don’t require them to have the piece of proprietary software that we licensed from so-and-so. What I really see in the CD-ROM market is where you’ve fragmented that market because each CD-ROM comes with its own front end software, and there’s only so many pieces of software as a user that you want to learn. And if you can’t use the same piece of software to read an encyclopedia as you can a dictionary as you can a biology reference manual, you know, you’re gonna stop using that environment. So we really think that the strength of something like the Web is that information can be ubiquitous in there. You can get it through lots of different ways. The more publishers that are on the Internet the better for all of us, and I really mean that’s better for the users, it’s better for the publishers. The richer the information space, the more people you’ll have in it.
Malamud: Do you think you’re going to get those other publishers online? The older mainstream publishers. Are they gonna join this world? ‘Cause you know, when they first started they were technology companies. When publishers first started, the current big companies, the McGraw Hills, were masters at running large printing presses and doing distribution of large volumes of papers to lots and lots of bookstores. They were technology companies. Are they going to be able to make this shift into the next technology?
Dougherty: Well I think they should be able to. It’s not clear, because this isn’t just a technology opportunity, it’s also a marketing and sales opportunity. And that’s another thing that publishers should be fairly strong at doing. But you know, this is not only an opportunity to deliver your books online, but it’s an opportunity to reach the people who want to buy them in the first place. So it really is a complete channel. And I think it requires not just…you know, what you see too much is publishers spend a fair amount of money doing a pilot project that produces a one-off…you know, one example of a product at the end. And they put that out and they put it in the bookstores. And you know, they end up selling a thousand of the thing. And they say “Well, we tried electronic publishing, it just didn’t work and we’ve retreated from it.” I think you need a different view of what electronic publishing is to make this work, and I think it involves some investment, it involves getting in and deciding how is this thing going to work ’cause it has to work. It’s just a matter of getting in there and figuring out what are the pieces that have to come together to make it work. I don’t think the idea of sending something off to a third party, having them put it on CD-ROM for you and giving you a product back which then you have to market and sell through traditional channels is really the way to break open this market.
Malamud: Gotta do it yourself.
Dougherty: Gotta do it yourself—
Malamud: DIY, as Peter Gabriel says.
Dougherty: Yeah. [laughs]
Malamud: Well thank you very much. We’ve been talking to Dale Dougherty, the publisher of Global Network Navigator. Thanks for being a Geek of the Week.
Dougherty: Thank you, Carl.
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This is Carl Malamud for the Internet Multicasting Service, town crier to the global village.