Circumvallation

I am have been reading Steve Arnold’s weblog on search, I have known Steve for over ten years now and he likes to challenge the status-quo and pushing people to see beyond the status-quo.

So it was very interesting to read his post about how Google is challenging Reed Elsevier and Thomson by indexing legal texts:

Google has added the full text of US federal cases and state cases. The coverage of the federal cases, district and appellate, is from 1924 to the present. US state cases cover 1950 to the present. Additional content will be added; for example, I have one source that suggested that the Commonwealth of Virginia Supreme Court will provide Google with CD ROMs of cases back to 1924. Google, according to this source, is talking with other sources of US legal information and may provide access to additional legal information as well.

His thesis is that the incumbents are like Vercingetorix stuck in Alesia (1) and that Google is like Ceasar who built two sets of wall around Alesia, one to keep the Gauls in, and the other to keep any relieving force out.

I like the analogy though it is not quite there, Google is not exactly laying siege and they don’t have to defend themselves. On the other hand the incumbents probably feel very much like the Gauls stuck in Alesia.

I was catching up with a long time friend earlier this week (a much smarter person than me), we were talking about lots of thing and one of those things was how particular species will move fluidly from one niche to another as they evolve. My feeling was that sometimes this happens in a fluid fashion without much struggle, but sometimes it can be quite violent resulting in the decimation of one or the other species (2). I wonder if this is closer to what is happening here. Google in moving in on an established market, though not in an explicitly deliberate fashion, and causing discomfort to the incumbents.

Now that a good portion of the data these incumbents charge for is available for free (it always was available for free, but access was difficult), it will likely force them to change their business model if they are to stay relevant. Steve makes that point very explicitly at he end of his post, for example:

Finally, what will be vulnerable to Google disruption will be difficult to use, expensive, and incomplete services. Maybe Reed Elsevier, Thomson Reuters, and Wolters Kluwer should merge. That will give the present crop of senior managers time to cash out. I don’t see an easy, quick, inexpensive, or painless way to prevent the lessons of Alesia being writ large in tomorrow’s digital headlines.

1 – I learned all about the siege of Alesia at when I was at school.

2 – For example, the introduction of Lionfish in the Caribbean is resulting in major population reduction in some indigenous species on the reefs.

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