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Folio to adopt XML, open up Views format

February 20, 1998

Seybold Report on Internet Publishing
Vol 2, No 6

Change is part of broader strategy to support native file formats in 1998

February, 1998 by Mark Walter, with Matt Hengey

Folio (www.folio.com), a division of Open Market, jumped on the XML bandwagon with a significant announcement last month that foreshadows its plan to "open" Folio infobases to enable documents to be indexed and secured in their native formats rather than requiring prior conversion to Folio’s flat-file markup language.

Todd Mickelsen, senior director of product marketing and management of Folio, said that Folio is working on an upgrade to Folio Views that will import and index XML-tagged documents directly, and then retain them in XML format within the infobase. He said that he expects Folio to be able to demonstrate such support in 1998.

Mickelsen said Folio also intends to support the Extensible Style Language (XSL) and Extensible Linking Language (XLL) in future releases of its Folio product line, but he declined to be specific about the timing of such support.

As for the flat-file markup language that Folio customers currently use for importing documents, Mickelson said that Folio will continue to support it. However, the company has made a strategic decision to migrate the Views product toward direct import and export support for XML and other native formats.

Break from the past. The move, which was welcomed by Folio customers with whom we spoke, is a significant one for the company, which has become an important supplier to many reference publishers. For years, the speed and compact size of its proprietary infobase format were key selling points of the product, which is used to deliver large document collections in electronic form. Folio also developed advanced functions, such as shadow files and copyright and usage management, that mainstream full-text retrieval products lack.

But as customers have begun migrating from proprietary networks and CD-ROMs to Web delivery, pressure on Folio to open up its format has mounted. The company responded in 1996 and 1997 by creating programming interfaces through which developers could access infobase functions and data. Eliminating the flat-file conversion requirement is a logical extension to that direction. It puts Folio, and its customers, in a better position to take advantage of related tools for authoring, parsing, manipulating and rendering XML-tagged documents.

Delighting corporate customers. The indexing of native file formats will be of particular benefit to customers that create infobases from a variety of sources. If they don’t have to write conversion filters for all of their input sources, the cost and time required to create infobases should be greatly reduced. Support for XML and XSL should also help to alleviate display problems.

Frank Niepold, manager of electronic publishing at Chubb Insurance, cheered the news. "We’re delighted with Folio’s announcement. It is typical of their proactive approach to responding accordingly to new technology developments."

Folio has been in use at Chubb for five years, and at this point, the company is in the midst of deploying about 500 native Folio applications over an intranet to about 9,000 employees.

Niepold noted that when Chubb creates HTML using Folio’s SiteDirector product, most of the files convert just fine. But some 20% of the applications contain formatting that does not convert well to HTML through SiteDirector.

For example, the HTML documents may lack the cascading indents that are present in the source Folio files, or they may mangle the column alignment of tab-delimited tables.

"Whatever gimmicks we come up with to fix those problems would be expensive and temporary," Niepold said. "XML is the only long-term solution that we see to this problem."

Chubb is involved in an effort to develop an industry-wide DTD for property casualty insurance publishing, and Niepold expressed hope that the commercial publishers that supply Chubb with more than half of its online library will join in that effort.

Positive commercial response. Commercial publishers with source text consistently marked up and stored in an SGML database typically experience their conversion pain farther upstream in the editorial process. For them, Folio’s move has a less immediate impact, though the adoption of data standards is almost always viewed as a welcome improvement.

"Anything that makes it easier for us to create electronic products is a bonus," said Ezra Ernst, executive editor at Aspen Law and Business, a Wolters Kluwer legal publisher. Aspen is a small publisher that produces reams of treatises, and it has been gradually migrating its editorial source files to SGML. Ernst said that he has found the current Folio SGML import option (using OmniMark to create Folio flat files) to be very straightforward. Aspen’s lean staff of just three people devoted to electronic products convert the text source files into Folio infobases by writing OmniMark scripts or by having the material converted by contractors. Even so, if the XML support streamlines the process, Ernst looks forward to the change.

Lee Gibbons, director of electronic product development for legal publisher Matthew Bender, also expressed his satisfaction that Folio was headed in the right direction.

Open questions. That’s not to say that it will be smooth sailing for Folio. Glenn Kessler, an independent consultant who had extensive experience with Folio when he was VP of emerging technology at the Research Institute of America, expressed the potential risks that this change represents for Folio.

Though he believes Folio must move toward open data formats, Kessler sees other competitors already in that space, posing new challenges for the company. "It’s an open question how well Folio will compete in online delivery of information in open formats," Kessler said. "With Folio, it was often difficult to go from SGML to the infobase format. This is definitely a step in the right direction. But they should have focused on this before now."

The small size and blazing speed of Folio infobases have been key selling points. "What will be the tradeoff in index size and performance?" Kessler asked.

As you might expect, Folio says it does not expect customers to sacrifice performance for openness: "We don’t expect any negative impact on performance or search speeds," said a company spokewoman in an E-mail reply to that question.

Our take. Folio will have to walk a fine line, finding a way to make money selling software in a niche market, even as its product begins to look, on the surface, more like mainstream text-retrieval products that are fast becoming commodities with little future. At a time when most of the full-text retrieval vendors are losing their shirts, Folio claims it is earning profits. So far, Folio has succeeded by staying focused on markets, such as legal, insurance and reference publishing, in which it is dominant. It now has a new parent, Open Market, that has staked out the high end of electronic commerce systems, a key concern of Folio’s customers as they migrate to the Web. The potential synergy between parent and new child is obvious and could help differentiate Folio as it moves forward.

SiteDirector upgrade. In other news, Folio recently released version 4.1 of SiteDirector. In this version, Folio opted to omit bundling a customized version of the Allaire HomeSite HTML editor. Instead, Folio focused on reducing the complexity of utilizing infobase variables from within SiteDirector template pages. Some 60 independent variables have been consolidated into 12 master variables, according to Folio.

Support for CSS is being considered, but did not make it into this release.

The price remained $5,000 and up. For commercial publishers, the fee is $10,000, plus a royalty on the content sold. The standard royalty is a straight 5% for small amounts but no more than $37 for high-priced items.

Open Market makes overseas gains. Open Market, Folio’s parent, continues to make inroads at the high end of the electronic commerce market. In addition to recent installations (see box below), Open Market continues to win orders from large Internet service providers in Europe and Asia.

In Asia, Singapore Press Holdings (www.ecomz.com) licensed Open Market’s Transact software to be the cornerstone of its new electronic commerce services.

Singapore Press, a publishing and printing group in Southeast Asia, will extend its AsiaOne commerce services and will allow the inclusion of Internet commerce services to customers. Singapore Press hopes to have 100 merchants up and running in the first year of operations.

In Europe, France Telecom (www.francetelecom.fr/indexus.html) also signed on to use Transact for secure electronic commerce on the Internet. The fourth-largest telecommunications company in the world, France Telecom plans to take a global approach to Internet commerce by offering a range of secure services while partnering with financial organizations to provide payment processing.

Open Market Folio Product Division
5072 North 300
West Provo, Utah 84604
Phone (801) 229-6700
Fax (801) 229-6787 www.folio.com