Wednesday, August 03, 2005

25 Years Online in the Netherlands: A Compact History in 25 Instalments

Instalment 3: Kluwer starts online database

In 1975 the law publisher Kluwer started to develop an online legal database. In my perception Kluwer is the first Dutch publisher to start developing a database with the intention to distribute the information online. The protocol for distribution is called ASCII, the American code for information interchange. In its strictest form it existed of 128 codes representing 128 letters and figures. In its extended code it represented 154 codes representing the 128 letters and figures, but also the diacritical signs such as the accents, trema and tilde. A user sees maximally 80 characters per lines, which start rolling from top of the screen to the bottom.

A print-out of a sentence

The managers of Kluwer had seen legal databases in the US at Mead Data Central and West Law in 1975 and realised that someday this phenomenon would hit the Netherlands also. So they took the lead. They went ahead aggressively and bought a main frame computer from the French company Bull and a full text retrieval system named Status, a software package developed by the British nuclear institute in Harwell. But for retrieving you need a text database; so they started to build it up with tapes of texts from phototypesetting. The text was of course not corrected, so wrongly typed words went into oblivion.

Portable terminal with thermal printer

From 1977 onwards there were two people on the project: Cor Verschoor and Jaap van Beelen. Jaap took care of the technical side. Cor was the explicateur and marketing man. They had a terminal with a thermal printer to take around and gave demonstrations to lawyers and of course the few people who were interested.

It took Kluwer till 1980 before they really could go on the market and sell a service. Of course there was no line of lawyers waiting to get a subscription, but still Kluwer believed in it. It took them years to convince the lawyers and when they were finally succeeding, the CD-ROM technology came around. They had at least one advantage at that time. They had large text databases to store on the silver discs. And in 1985 they could be found on a pilot disc together with a dictionary database of Van Dale Lexicography and medical database of Bohn, Scheltema & Holkema. I still have the disc, but cannot play it anymore. By 1987 Kluwer had the first commercial disc entitled Juridische Databank (Legal database). The software company in charge of the production had some troubles (which is a real understatement) as the production software was not very stable. But eventually the disc could go on sale and was such a success that online went almost out of fashion.

It was a shock for the company to see online coming into fashion again with internet. Despite all the exercises they had done with mark-up language, they could start anew to produce internet sites and link their databases to a portal. Wolters Kluwer did not react in time and still has problems playing the new game.

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