Monday, June 16, 2008

The Next Version of MarkMail

The Mark Logic User Conference closed out on an amazing high note. Ian Small, Senior Vice President and General Manager of MarkMail, gave an exciting preview of the next iteration of that product. If you are unfamiliar with MarkMail, it is an archive of public mailing lists that has been enhanced by Mark Logic engineers with superb retrieval and analytical functions. The next iteration of MarkMail will apply those strengths to private mailing lists and even to an individual's private email collection. This is so clearly what Microsoft ought to have had the foresight to do with Outlook and that failure could well cost them. Frankly, I would drop Outlook without a moment's hesitation, if I were able to use this application instead to slice and dice the hundreds of emails that flow through my inbox.

I will be keeping an eye on the MarkMail blog, expecting progress reports. (When I asked how soon I, as a member of the general public, might be able to gain access to the service, Ian would only give me and the rest of the audience a cryptic "soon".)

This session was the highlight for me of the Mark Logic User Conference. Even now, four days after watching Ian demo the product, I can still feel the excitement. Such a cool tool!

Friday, June 13, 2008

Emerging Themes

This morning the speakers that I have heard have been integrating the threads that have emerged through the past two days of discussion as they apply to their own presentations. Lisa Bos of Really Strategies, Inc. pointed out two such themes in the day's first presentation, the first of which is that not all content is well-suited to the relational database model and the second of which was that quality metadata is what drives robust applications. Search by itself is inadequate.

What I am hearing as an emergent concern is that the shift required in moving to an XML environment on a content level is more at this point about converting cultural attitudes than about technological change. In the modern age, human beings are used to being presented with content in a fixed, linear form. With the adoption of XML, there is the flexibility to re-form content for delivery in a way that divorces it from that fixed, linear narrative. The traditional thinking about content is alarmed by that concept. Context is absolutely critical to understanding a piece of content and we do not want to lose that. But the ability to see pieces of content outside of an original document (whether as a search snippet or as an thumbnail in a gallery view or as an abstract shape in a visualization tool) is critical for purposes of allowing users to browse online. We are in fact learning how to browse content in new ways. Instead of flipping pages back and forth in a book, stopping at an interesting paragraph appearing in a specific chapter, we see and grasp the significance of a piece of content online through different viewing options. XML makes that feasible in a digital environment. But changing the mindset of providers and consumers of content in accepting that this is an equally valid mechanism for absorbing and retaining information is the most difficult challenge.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Twitter at the Conference

Follow the tweets pouring out from this conference through this page. Marvelous way of viewing audience response to the formal presentations.

Chris Linblad, Founder and CTO of Mark Logic Speaks

Just three bullet points from the interview Andy Feit, Senior VP Of Marketing, just finished with Chris Linblad, Founder and CTO of Mark Logic.

How did you come up with the name, Mark Logic? What names did you discard? Ceriscent was the original name of the company (based on the cerisse, a dramatic shade of red), but the investors hated that name. They struggled with it; finally at the end of a very long meeting, someone asked in a humorous vein, "Why don't you just call it Mark?" Chris said he had wanted to use Mark Schema as the corporate name, "...That's how geeky I am". They finally settled on Mark Logic.

What will Mark Logic look like five years from now? He would like to see Mark Logic as a mainstream technology. Those attending this user conference are, in his eyes, early adopters in pushing the envelope with what can be done with content. He'd like such applications to be less remarkable in five years.

What do you think is the biggest feature in the forthcoming version 4.0 of Mark Logic Server for content providers and developers? Chris says that's like asking a parent to say which is his favorite kid. "I don't have a favorite, but I want them all to play nicely with one another. Integration is key."

What Would You Do If You Were The Publisher?

That's the question Elsevier is asking users to answer. How might the display of scientific articles be enhanced or improved? There will be more information over this summer about a contest they will be sponsoring (go here for the information that is currently available). If you are clever with XQuery as a programming language, you have an opportunity to possibly direct the future of STM publishing. Very cool!

The Importance of Customization

I listened to two presentations this morning from publishers (one commercial, one a scholarly society) as they discussed the ways in which they are leveraging the strength of Mark Logic's tools. Both services were designed to satisfy specific populations. In the instance of the commercial publisher, the provider was developing an information service to serve industry analysts associated with brokerage and investment firms. In the instance of the scholarly society, the service was designed to satisfy an equally specialized population, exploratory geophysicists. These are the populations that can not be satisfied with just a "good enough" answer. These populations need authoritative information, augmented by analytical tools.

In previous years, both of these populations would have been supported by systems that forced the searcher to run a query using the same interface, regardless of the difference in the nature of the content being sought. Very like Henry Ford's old line about buying a Model-T -- "You can have any color you want as long as it is black." There was no customization of display or rendering of content specifically suited to a community or profession. In the current environment, it seems that this is one of the primary ways in which publishers are trying to tailor their product to satisfy the need. In the case of Platts, a McGraw-Hill B2B information service, the results generated from a search include not just the full text of an article or report, but additional links to relevant pricing data, regional information and additional relevant content from McGraw Hill publications that the user may not have thought to consider. In the case of the American Institute of Physics, the system brought together the content from more than half-dozen publishers to enable a unified search that even allowed searches to be run according to a variety of mark-up languages. That's important because mathematical equations are currently being rendered in several different mark-up languages, each with its own population of supporters who need to work in that particular rendering. Such differences may seem minor, but are indicative of how different user populations approach an information query, discover relevant content and interact or re-use that content.

Users will be better served by this style of customization. Mark Logic's contribution is to provide the technology in support of that publishing need.

McAfee and the Search Experience

Andrew McAfee, Professor, Harvard Business School and noted advocate of Enterprise 2.0, offered an interesting example of information seeking.from his personal experience. Searching for a known item on a brand-name information service and on Google scholar, he was amazed to learn that he was more successful in his objective on Google Scholar than on the brand-name information platform. His point was that the current user experience with regard to information retrieval was incredibly frustrating and that the alternatives provided by organizations like Google or Wikipedia will inevitably be more successful over the long term because they offer a more satisfactory user experience.

McAfee suggests that expert, authoritative, and perfect are slippery concepts. He agrees that “Good enough” is not necessarily appropriate for all information queries; one might want a cardiologist to only accept the best answer. Name-brand information providers need to understand that improving the user experience is imperative. Google forgives his stupidity; his query structure need not be perfect to retrieve an answer. Google offers convenience in the sense of not requiring a sign-on or any form of authentication. Google can offer the power of serendipitous discovery. He sees the dynamism of Google's changing results as a positive thing as in fact information is not necessarily static.

The overwhelming message from McAfee was that whether one was discussing search on the local intranet, search on an advanced information service platform, or search for a simple information need, the current approaches in use by providers are failing the user. Rising populations of knowledge workers who have grown up with the Web and Google will not be satisfied with the current offerings and as McAfee points out, will walk with their feet.

Dave Kellogg has fantastic coverage of McAfee's talk here.