Rumors of Interchange Proprietary Software's Death Are Exaggerated

By: Steve Outing

An Associated Press story dated yesterday reported on the alleged demise of AT&T Interchange's proprietary software in favor of development of online services by AT&T based on the technical standards of the Internet. "Deep in the announcement that AT&T Corp. would make its largest job cut ever, the company signalled an important strategic change in its computer online services for consumers and businesses," the AP story said. "AT&T plans to abandon the proprietary software required to use its online services," including Interchange.

That story overstated the case, and AT&T Interchange remains a viable online publishing platform for newspapers. It is making the transition to an open Internet service over the coming year, rather than entirely abandoning its proprietary software.

AT&T New Media Services president Michael Kolowich said yesterday that of the 40,000 job cuts announced by AT&T this week, none are in his division. And, he said, there is no plan to abandon the Interchange proprietary software, "not tomorrow, not in a week, not in a month, not in 6 months."

What is the case with AT&T Interchange -- as it is with most of the other major online services -- is that Interchange is over time evolving to incorporate the open standards of the Internet. Rather than abandon the proprietary platform, Interchange is in the process of bringing more and more of the World Wide Web onto Interchange. "Later in 1996, it will be difficult to distinguish where Interchange ends and the Web begins," Kolowich said.

Interchange's client newspaper publishers -- the Washington Post, the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, and the New Haven Register in Connecticut -- will all have Internet-based products in 1996. The Post is part of an upcoming joint political Web service called ElectionLine, in partnership with ABC TV and Newsweek magazine. The Star Tribune operates a modest Web site that it intends to expand. These publishers' Web services may or may not be produced with AT&T New Media Services, but AT&T has made the offer to work with the newspapers, Kolowich said.

At the Star Tribune, which was the second major newspaper to sign up with Interchange, Star Tribune Online (STO) publisher Robert Schafer says the paper will continue to operate the proprietary service using Interchange and operate concurrently a Web service similar in scope and content to STO Interchange. Schafer says the signals sent this week by AT&T are causing his paper to speed up the migration of its services to the Web.

The current Star Tribune Web site is modest, and will be expanded to the "STO Web Edition" for a February launch and be built out by the spring. The primary difference between the two flavors of STO will be that the Web edition will lack some of the content that was licensed by the newspaper for the Interchange version. Such external content is, of course, abundant and free on the Web.

While STO Interchange charges a subscription fee to access the service, STO Web will start out as a free service supported by advertising, later charging a fee for accessing premium content, archives, etc. but keeping some content free for casual Web visitors. (This is similar to Knight-Ridder's strategy for its newspapers' Web services, which charge a monthly fee for access to the "good stuff.")

Representatives of the Washington Post's Digital Ink did not return my phone calls in time for this column, though if I can catch up with them today I'll follow up this column on Friday. Based on my previous conversations with Digital Ink executives, it's clear the Web is very much in their thoughts and strategic planning; we'll see more activity on the Web from Digital Ink.

Publishers working with AT&T New Media Services might operate -- in the near term -- similarly to Europe Online, the upstart European online service that last fall decided to abandon its plan to use the Interchange platform exclusively in favor of a Web-based system using Netscape client software. While Europe Online's primary consumer services will be on the Web, the Interchange platform will be used for some business services and those requiring sophisticated features available now only with the Interchange client. Publishers likewise might still use the Interchange proprietary platform for business services where open access to all Internet users is not an issue, while using a more Web-oriented strategy for consumer services.

As Interchange takes on more Internet characteristics in the coming year, it will no longer be seen as a proprietary system. Integrating into the Internet will be necessary for Interchange's survival, as well as its future suitability as an online publishing platform for newspaper companies.

Best Online Newspaper Services Competition

Please don't forget to nominate your own company or another for Editor & Publisher/The Kelsey Group's 1996 Best Online Newspaper Services Competition. The nomination form is on the Web at Deadline for nominations is January 24, 1996. Winners will be announced at the Interactive Newspapers conference in San Francisco on February 24, 1996.

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