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Odlyzko on electronic publishing, 1996
May 29, 2011 7:46 PM   Subscribe

"As recently as a year ago, there were many publishers, librarians, and scholars who thought that electronic publishing was just a passing fad." In 1996, the number theorist Andrew Odlyzko, a pioneer in the development of "experimental mathematics" via large-scale computation, wrote a article, prescient in many respects, about the effect the Internet would have on the economics of scholarly publication, and on commerce more generally.
posted by escabeche (20 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
The sadness of being deemed prescient in retrospect...
posted by joost de vries at 8:12 PM on May 29, 2011


Very cool, some of this is a blast from the past, HD-ROM developed at Los Alamos set to overtake CD-ROM? Sounds awesome. 1996 was like 100 years ago in Internet years, amazon.com went online in 95. The Internet had not reached anywhere near the buy in it has today.

This is also interesting as I work for a large commercial printer, as a programmer, or in the ossified world of printing a "technology advisor". I write data visualization software now, but for several years I worked on the nuts and bolts of digital publishing. It has been a struggle for a traditional businesses, commercial printing companies, which until recently counted among it's members the oldest continuously operation company in the united states, to figure out just what the fuck they are going to do when nobody wants physical books. The answer so far has been, do what we have been doing minus the printing. We will take your word doc, hold your hand through the process, provide proof-reading or translation services if needed, and hand you back whatever format you want.

Now it seems scholarly journals are at a crossroads, some disciplines still cling to hyper-expensive print journals. Well nobody said it was going to be easy. Publishing is going to be dragged into the modern world no matter how hard you stomp your feet. This is no longer conjecture, it is a given.
posted by Ad hominem at 8:24 PM on May 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


I'm curious how true people think part this turned out to be:

"Ecommerce is likely to lead to a proliferation of pricing plans that
will seem to most people to be much more frustrating and less rational
than even today's U.S. airlines. There will probably be a niche
market for people who care most about their convenience, and will use
their intelligent agents to do their shopping for them. However, what
Sony, for example, might do is sell to that market only models of VCRs
that are not available elsewhere, and are hard to compare to those
sold in other places. Stores that have physical buildings are likely
to serve a different clientele, and might also take further steps to
differentiate themselves to prevent comparison shopping, which will be
much easier with many people sharing their experiences on the
Internet. There is likely to be a proliferation of frequent-shopper
plans. Further, Sony VCRs sold in Sears stores might be slightly
different from those sold in WalMart, and model numbers and features
might change rapidly to inhibit consumer rating services (such as
Consumer Reports, or various Internet-based group-rating schemes that
are beginning to develop)."
posted by escabeche at 8:32 PM on May 29, 2011


"number theorist Andrew Odlyzko"? Seriously? I guess I know him mostly for his work in analytic combinatorics, which admittedly is a minor part of what he's done, but you're showing your bias.

</petty mathematician turf war>
posted by madcaptenor at 8:45 PM on May 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think there has been more consolidation than he would have imagined, there are maybe dozens, not hundreds of places to buy a DVD player online, surely not enough places to bust out the intelligent agents (also awesomely quaint) and if you really want to compare, the legwork has been commodified, just go to something like pricegrabber.com. I don't imagine this going in reverse, I think we will see less competition, not thousands of sites all offering the same DVD player at a slightly different price.

plans. Further, Sony VCRs sold in Sears stores might be slightly
different from those sold in WalMart, and model numbers and features


This is an interesting one because this has happened, maybe not in DVD players as imagine the price to build slightly different versions is too high to justify. But some books have amazon.com covers, and if you pre-order a video game you get different in game bonus stuff if you buy from say gamestop.

When he wrote This article I am not sure he imagined The Web as we know it today. As an academic who had had access to the Internet for maybe years, he might have imagined whole competing ecosystems, he probably thought gopher was still in the running. Hell, he might have thought Cyberspace was around the corner, and we would send out our agents to visit thousands of nodes to shop for us.
posted by Ad hominem at 8:50 PM on May 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


Stores that have physical buildings are likely to serve a different clientele, and might also take further steps to differentiate themselves to prevent comparison shopping, which will be much easier with many people sharing their experiences on the Internet.

The worst offender here is mattresses, which are just about the only consumer good that has managed to beat Consumer Reports. CR won't review mattresses because the mattress companies have done such a good job of brand and model confusion.

There is likely to be a proliferation of frequent-shopper plans.

This is definitely true. There's all manner of rewards programs, and every large merchant has a rewards credit card that they push, often very irritatingly.

Further, Sony VCRs sold in Sears stores might be slightly different from those sold in WalMart, and model numbers and features might change rapidly to inhibit consumer rating services (such as Consumer Reports, or various Internet-based group-rating schemes that are beginning to develop)."

This happens with appliances and HD televisions for sure, but it doesn't seem to faze CR and forums (with the exception of mattresses, above). Another big example is Netflix. The DVDs you get from Netflix are different from what you'd get at a retailer: no or very limited special features and a bunch of ads before the menu (not just trailers but outright ads).
posted by jedicus at 8:54 PM on May 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


Ecommerce is likely to lead to a proliferation of pricing plans that will seem to most people to be much more frustrating and less rational than even today's U.S. airlines.

Other than airlines continuing to be frustrating and irrational, this has largely not turned out to be true.

There will probably be a niche market for people who care most about their convenience, and will use their intelligent agents to do their shopping for them.

This is not true either. It turns out that nearly everybody uses an intelligent agent. For most people it's called 'Google,' though there are others, more or less specialized.
posted by jedicus at 8:58 PM on May 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm curious how true people think part this turned out to be:

... intelligent agents ...

Yup, sounds like the mid 1990s

Further, Sony VCRs sold in Sears stores might be slightly different from those sold in WalMart, and model numbers and features might change rapidly to inhibit consumer rating services

This ignores the economic benefit those rating services give to companies like Sony. People turn to the large recommender services because they provide a directory, browsing and search service in addition to a rating service. And if your company isn't in it, your products may not even be considered for purchasing. Consider Yelp, where restaurants actually pay to be featured.
posted by formless at 9:17 PM on May 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


jedicus: Another big example is Netflix. The DVDs you get from Netflix are different from what you'd get at a retailer: no or very limited special features and a bunch of ads before the menu (not just trailers but outright ads).

I have not had that experience. There are ads on the mailers but the discs themselves are regular retail, as far as I can tell.

This is actually pretty depressing. It's one of those things you're aware is going on beneath your nose but really prefer not to think about.
posted by tatma at 9:24 PM on May 29, 2011


Further, Sony VCRs sold in Sears stores might be slightly different from those sold in WalMart, and model numbers and features might change rapidly to inhibit consumer rating services

My understanding is that frequent/unnecessary model differentiation is also used as an end-run around price-matching policies.
posted by jsturgill at 9:30 PM on May 29, 2011


For more obscure stuff the netflix discs are regular retail; for more mass-market stuff they're special. At least the physical disc is often watermarked with "Netflix", although this might be more of a theft-prevention device.
posted by madcaptenor at 9:30 PM on May 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


I stand corrected on the consumer electronics differentiation,I don't buy that
much.
posted by Ad hominem at 9:36 PM on May 29, 2011


I guess I must not get enough mass market Netflix stuff, because I've never seen any ads, other than for other DVDs by the same company (i.e. BBC video). And it's usually just one. And certainly I have gotten entire discs wit special features from Netflix, just as they are in retail.

It is also the case that there are often several different retail versions of the same movie, especially when they out out special edition DVDs or box sets. So there often isn't *the* retail version, but Netflix probably has *a* retail version.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 10:14 PM on May 29, 2011


pricing plans that will seem to most people to be much more frustrating and less rational than even today's U.S. airlines

I had to buy a computer from Dell the other day. They make the airlines seem like paragons of ease and rationality. Depending on how you come into the site, what links you happen to click where, the phases of the moon, etc., you can get wildly different prices on the same item. I managed to get the exact same laptop for as much as $300 less depending on what search terms I used in Google to get to Dell's site, and then I could get the price to vary another $200 by picking from a multitude of identical models ... the only difference between the models were what options were available. (E.g., you pay a bigger base price for one model, in order to pay less for a particular option. So if you pay $800 base, the high-res screen only costs $50 extra; if you pay $600 base then the screen is $100.) Promotions like free memory upgrades flicker in and out of existence without warning; the price on Tuesday may differ vastly from the price Wednesday.

It's insane and really seems to only be possible on the Internet. In a physical retail store I think you'd have customers demanding to know what the hell you were playing at within the first ten minutes.

Sony VCRs sold in Sears stores might be slightly different from those sold in WalMart

This definitely happens all the time. I don't know enough about Sony products, but many manufacturers give their WalMart products specific model numbers, sometimes for the same item that's sold elsewhere. I assume they generally do this to try and shield their other resellers from too much downward price pressure.

Food product manufacturers will often sell a different quantity or package size via WalMart than in other stores ... sometimes it's a really huge package (like the ill-conceived Vlasic gallon jar of pickles) but sometimes I've seen packages that just seem to be an ounce or two off. Though I can think of reasons to do this besides to inhibit comparison shopping, that would seem like a side benefit.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:17 PM on May 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


Sony VCRs sold in Sears stores might be slightly different from those sold in WalMart

Home Depot does this too, with grills, power tools and lawn care equipment. The warranties are often different too, as are the specifications. I asked a manager type there why the specs were slightly different and the answer was because the Depot has a set price beyond which they won't buy a particular item, so the manufacturer alters it slightly, using slightly lesser quality parts in order to hit the price point Depot wants. My guess is this is why Walmart food items are slightly different too, and not just to inhibit comparison shopping.
posted by dave78981 at 11:23 PM on May 29, 2011


Sony VCRs sold in Sears stores might be slightly different from those sold in WalMart

Apple did this a lot in the mid-nineties. There were specific models and bundles of Performas for various retailers. The complexity got out of hand and they lost control of costs, even when they were selling boatloads of macs. They now embody the alternative: a boutique model in which a limited range is available from a smaller number of outlets.
posted by GeorgeBickham at 11:26 PM on May 29, 2011


I'm curious how true people think part this turned out to be:

"Ecommerce is likely to lead to a proliferation of pricing plans that
will seem to most people to be much more frustrating and less rational
than even today's U.S. airlines.


No. He could not have predicted that the US airlines have amped up in their irrational pricing plans to compete with the internets. And for that reason alone, I disagree.
posted by hal_c_on at 11:44 PM on May 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


One mundane reason for the Wal Mart model number differentiation is logistics--WM takes some control of packaging and distribution for stuff it sells. It can be quite a burden for some manufacturers, even, not an effort to manipulate the market.
posted by beschizza at 5:42 AM on May 30, 2011


We rented "Inception" from a RedBox kiosk last weekend. The disc was etched with the RedBox logo, and the unskippable ads and trailers (15 minutes, I'd swear it) were so infuriating that we went and watched YouTube videos until they were done. I hadn't had this experience with RedBox before, FWIW.
posted by Songdog at 5:56 AM on May 30, 2011


In order to reduce DVD acquisition costs, Netflix (and I presume Redbox) has arrangements with the major studios to order special discount runs of the titles that they want to buy in large quantities. They have plain labels to save on the cost of printing the DVDs.

The studios largely regard Netflix as a vampire that undercuts DVD sales, and they have forced them to give up a lot to get these discounted DVDs, which is why there is now a 28-day delay in availability for most major-studio new releases. There definitely have been a few titles in which the studio insisted on supplying special feature-less versions of the discs (again, to protect sales) but I believe so far these are the exception rather than the rule. To the best of my knowledge, any ads or trailers you see on the discs are the studios doing, not Netflix's, and are the same on the retail version.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 10:21 AM on May 30, 2011


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