In the wake of the Ordnance Survey’s liberation of the UK’s geographical information, I just had an interesting conversation with Glyn Moody about the relationship between free digital publishing and the sale of same data on physical substrate.

If computer reading is cheaper and more convenient, can free digital publishing lead to sale of same data on physical substrate ? Free data on physical substrate has market value if the substrate has value on its own or if the data has sentimental value. That is a potential axis of development for the traditional publishing industry : when nostalgia and habits are involved, the perceived value of the scarce physical substrate of digitally abundant data may actually increases. Of course, free data has value on its own – but, as the reader of this blog certainly knows, it involves a business model entirely different to physical items.

Identification of content producers, quality control, aggregation, packaging… This is what a traditional editor does – and it is also what a Linux distribution does. Isn’t it ironical that those the Free software world and the world or traditional publishing have had such a hard time understanding each other ?

Some actors did catch the wave early on. In the mid-nineties, I remember that my first exposure to Free software took the form of a Walnut Creek CD-ROM – at the time there was a small publishing industry based on producing and distributing physical media filled with freely available packages for those of us stuck across tens of kilobytes thin links in the Internet’s backwaters. And there were other before : since time immemorial, the Free software industry has understood that the market role of producing data on physical substrate is distinct and independent from managing the data. As Glyn Moody remarked, it is only a matter of time before the media industry as a whole gets it.

Strangely, the media industry lags at least fifteen years – and probably twenty : even in mainstream publications, the writing has been on the wall for that long. To prove that, here is an excerpts of a 1994 New York Times article by Laurie Flynn “In the On-Line Market, the Name of the Game Is Internet” :

“I think Compuserve as a business is going to change very radically,” said David Strom, a communications and networking consultant in Port Washington, N.Y. “It could be they’re going to become a pipe, an access provider to the Internet, rather than a content provider.”

But Compuserve, like other on-line services, says it will continue to find ways to differentiate its offerings from databases of similar information on the Internet, by providing better search tools, a more organized approach and better customer service.

Compuserve has just released a CD-ROM, to be updated bimonthly, that works with its consumer on-line service to add video clips and music to the service in a magazine-like format. In the first edition, for example, users can view a video clip from a Jimmy Buffett concert and then with a click of the mouse connect to the Compuserve on-line service where they can order the audio CD. All the on-line services are working to add multimedia.

“Compuserve has 15 years experience in organizing that data and making it easy for them to find it and grab it,” Mr. Hogan said. “It’s not just a user interface issue but how content is packaged.”

The history of Compuserve since then shows that they were never able to fully execute that vision. But it shows how long it took for the idea of free data as lifeblood of a multi-industry symbiotic organism to get from visionaries to a mainstream business model.

In the nineties, we had to endure the tired rear-guard debate of “content vs. pipes”. The coming of age of Free data, confirms that the whole thing was moot from the very start. In 1984, Stewart Brand said “Information Wants To Be Free. Information also wants to be expensive… That tension will not go away”. I believe that said tension is most definitely in the process of going away as free data will dominate and feed a system of economic actors who will add value to it and feed each other in the process.