Richard Patterson sits comfortably in his fifth-floor Docklands office, looking north through a wall of windows at the marina below. On a clear day, the view can be distracting, perhaps even romantic - if you can forget that this is East London. The narrow water-way separates his office in South Quay from the towering Canary Wharf skyscraper, Canada House. There, the offices of Mirror Group Newspapers occupy floors 18 to 22. Conrad Black's Telegraph sits just below on 10 to 14. "When I was working on the Mirror's archiving system," recalls Patterson, "sometimes I used to just stare out of the windows. The view is amazing from up there."
Today is another good day for Patterson. He has just closed a deal between his two-year-old company, Cascade Systems, and leading UK law publisher Sweet & Maxwell. The firm now joins MGN, Express Newspapers, the Manchester Evening News, RR Donnelley and Newsday on the long list of Cascade's big-name clients. The amazing thing is, Patterson has sold them all what they already own: their archives. Almost by accident, he has also sold them a new publishing paradigm - that the production process does not have to end with print.
It's a money-spinner. With its new digital archiving system, MediaSphere, which debuted in this country last September, Cascade has already made millions convincing the trade that libraries are sexy. MediaSphere, says Patterson, is in a class of its own: "We came into this business with no history and we aren't trying to shovel or change existing technology. Cascade won't build on top of compromises."
The database can store pictures, text, video, audio and pages of Acrobat PDF files, and can be fully integrated into existing production processes. Queries are filtered through a natural-language search engine, based on probability theory rather than the usual Boolean technology. Probability theory is used to rank selected documents and to suggest other related information. This allows the user to follow ideas between documents. It also rules out the need to recall a set of predetermined keywords.
MediaSphere is the first digital library system designed to store data regardless of type and content. Once digital and accessible, the information can be repackaged for CD-ROMs, online news, pay-per-bit dial-in archives - for almost any new medium or service. Furthermore, MediaSphere is the first library system which supports automated indexing and collects a continuous audit trail of searches. Patterson hopes the interface is simple enough to make the database accessible for journalists and outside users alike.
"The premise behind the whole system was to create an interactive archive system which liberates rather than cages information, and which maximises the value of its contents," he says.
Cascade sells the whole kit. Sun's SPARC servers hold the data, and users can access archives by running MediaSphere on their PCs or Macs. The software alone is priced at £40,000, so even before hardware and storage costs are met it's quite a pricey investment for an industry that puts all its efforts into creating throw-away products. But compared to the industry's traditional costs it's a bargain. (Even before paper costs, printing and production of a single issue of a single magazine can cost as much as Cascade's software, and in 1995 world newsprint costs have gone through the roof.)
Media owners appear to have decided that Cascade is cheap at the price. They can't wait to sign up. The rush to fulfil the daily hype of electronic delivery is forcing publishers to put something, anything, online, rather than fall behind in the digital race.
But what most media owners have so far neglected to do is to integrate online publishing into the daily production process. E-papers have somehow been ghettoised into an independent arm of the information process. MediaSphere, on the other hand, could put online delivery in its rightful place. With its ability to work with existing pagination systems and store documents in many formats, MediaSphere could prepare data for any delivery medium - there would be no reason for an online version of a story to be the poor relation.
The Net and commercial online providers are the obvious delivery methods employed by most tech-savvy publishers. But putting information on the Net, so far, has been equivalent to giving it away. And the commercial carriers keep most of the publishing revenue in their own pockets. Patterson believes that keeping all one's information in-house, in digital form, is the best way to secure control over profits, assets and delivery. Media owners, according to this theory, are just beginning to understand the value of their content and the central role of the library. The industry's new rallying cry is: Content is King.
For some, of course, it's already too late. In the States, the archive of a newspaper is still called the "morgue" - and just like a pile of corpses, the information sits, decomposes and takes up space. (More recent information is stored on film or CD-ROM, but it's lifeless just the same.) At the New York Times, however, there must be an entirely separate department of executives devoted to scratching their heads and wondering who was to blame for their paper's awesome lack of foresight. In 1982, ten years before the e-paper gold rush, they sold their archives to Meade Data Central, who then resold them to Reed-Elsevier as part of the Lexis-Nexis database.
The changing status of newspaper archives was signalled and summarised by Richard Withey, News International's Director of New Media, at an international publishing conference last year in Munich. (Patterson, significantly, can quote him word for word.) "Your library is no longer a moribund planet on the outreaches of your solar system," Withey told delegates. "It will become the centre of your solar system."
Withey used to be News International's chief librarian. His promotion to Director of New Media is not just a personal step up the career ladder, but an indication of the changing focus of the entire publishing industry. Libraries - as recognised by News International, that most financially wily of media conglomerates - are the new powerhouses at the centre of the publishing industry's economic future.
Now that the maturity of technology has lowered data-storage prices, Patterson says it's stupid to throw information away or to bury it in a morgue. "We spend all day and all this money to produce data, and what are we going to do with it at the end of the day? Junk it? Or put it in a form that's almost impossible to re-use? Not clever."
This shift in focus will drastically change the lives of librarians, journalists, managers and consumers. But, as with any technological development, convincing people to embrace the change is always the most difficult task; much more challenging than developing the technology in the first place. Industry is traditionally resistant to change and many major corporations have missed huge opportunities as a result.
Patterson likes to tell the salutory story of American hard-drive manufacturer Seagate. It completely fluffed the 3.5-inch disk-drive market, even though it had the drives in its labs because, when the R&D people showed them to the marketing people, they were told that customers, actually preferred better, higher density 5.25-inch disks - and always would.
Seagate failed, according to Patterson, because it too closely followed the age-old dictum: the customer is always right. But why should a company trust its consumer base? Consumers are rarely best positioned either to look back in history or to predict what impact changes in technology will actually have. To be honest, consumers rarely know what they want until it's thrust under their noses, he believes.
It's a gamble. Despite the current mad rush into online publishing, CD-ROMs and interactive-multimedia-digital-type-stuff, no-one is making a real profit yet. Publishers are guessing what their consumers want, and consumers are guessing what they might want - but neither of them have a solid foundation for their guesses yet.
But in the meantime, Cascade is doing very nicely, thank you.
Patterson has built a career on harnessing technological change, and made himself a millionaire. Cascade was born when his previous company, Hyphen Ltd - which developed high-speed PostScript printing technology, making £60 million in five years - imploded following a financial dispute with its Italian investors. The company still exists, but Patterson spent what he calls an "educational" year in the courts. (Other people prefer the word "acrimonious".) "If you are ever looking for a real thrill in life, an expensive thrill," he says now, "try watching someone wearing a funny wig, who has the barest acquaintance of the facts, pronouncing on your entire existence."
Cascade Systems started with six employees in 1993. It now has 70, and offices on both sides of the Atlantic. (The fifth, newly opened in Miami, cannily positions it to enter the South American market.) To date, all deals for Media-Sphere have been made with print-media owners, but Cascade is planning to approach the television, music, financial and legal industries soon - the next logical step, according to Patterson. "Every industry needs to manage digital information. The boundaries are so blurred nowadays, they're almost non-existent."
Blurred or not, one thing is clear: there's an information gold mine out there, and Patterson has the best spade. "The impact technology can have on businesses, and what change can mean for them, is incredible," he says. "But if you don't react to it, and adapt to it; if you don't realise what it's going to do to you - it's gonna kill you."
If there's a moral to Cascade's story, it's this: information may want to be free, but freeing that information costs. Debbie Fellner is touring Europe, but her real job is being Wired's Netsurf editor.