The Internet dream of allowing anyone with a PC access to any information they could possibly require has been only partially realised, mainly because it is still so difficult to actually pinpoint the data you want amidst the vast mountains of irrelevancies. Enter 'consumer data warehousing', or 'Web warehousing'. Not only does this emerging trend have the advantage of combining everyone's favourite marketing terms of the moment in one catchy phrase, but it potentially offers companies a better prospect of actually making money from the Net than all the virtual trading experiments tried so far.
Internet purists will scream at corporations and IT suppliers seeking to turn the world of freely available information to commercial gain, but large companies are already weighing up the consumer warehousing options. Schemes are piloting in the US and Microsoft?s recent purchase of decision support company Panorama has put the spotlight on the mainstream potential of tools that have previously lived in a rarefied niche.
Consumer warehousing is no different from enterprise data warehousing, except that those accessing and analysing the information are the general public rather than business managers. In the US, the pioneers have been in the healthcare sector. Schemes are in the works whereby consumers pay an annual fee to be able to access a vast healthcare data warehouse via the Internet. Once into the service, they are presented with simplifed versions of the online analytical processing tools used to query warehouses in business circles, and can ask questions such as 'where can I get this treatment most cheaply?', 'what is the success rate of this operation?', 'what are the side effects of this drug?', and so on. Services are set to be fully launched early next year, mainly regional to start with.
Hospitals, insurance companies, pharmaceutical suppliers and so on can suddenly make money not just from treating patients but by selling the data they hold, either directly through their own information services, or more probably via a third party building a comprehensive warehouse.
In the short term, such vast Internet-based warehouses will probably remain in the business-to-business sector, with consumer usage being driven by easier access mechanisms such as kiosks or telephones. Retail chains are already trying to lock their food suppliers into paying vast sums for data about sales trends from them rather than independent market researchers, on the grounds that their point of sale and loyalty card information is the most comprehensive available. The next stage is to offer this via constantly updated Internet services rather than monthly paper-based reports - something Wal-Mart in the US is already doing and the UK supermarkets are said to be considering.
Credit card companies are also investigating the establishment of Web-based warehouses, which would be updated daily with details of every sale made. Personal credit card holder transactions would not be available because of data protection laws, but such a warehouse could record details of every product sold - its make, price, outlet and so on. This would provide product manufacturers, for example, with an instant sales picture each day, which could be almost as accurate as the sales as the sales reports they wait weeks to receive. Credit card data would also be valuable to travel companies, politicians trying to keep a handle on consumer confidence, investors assessing the health of a product supplier, and so on.
As well as information holders, this is a clear opportunity for decision support tool makers to break out into a mainstream market, and much of the interest in consumer warehousing is being driven by them. Micro Strategy, which makes relational Olap tools, admits its strategy was based on remaining in a niche marketm, until the Internet exploded. ?If there had been no other developments we would have a nice business growing at 30-50 per cent a year for the next five years,? said chief executive Mike Saylor. ?But the Internet hit, and has made the database a consumer thing, not just a back office business tool. All our technologies are now leveragable to a vast group of people.?
Saylor believes the Internet will turn the current data warehousing market on its head. Instead of being focused on a few, large enterprise applications, serving a tens or possibly hundreds of corporate users, the main money will be made from many, massive warehouses accessed by millions.
It is no coincidence that companies such as Microsoft are eyeing the Olap market. The recent acquisition of Israeli Olap company Panorama gives Microsoft a decision support tool to offer its enterprise customers, but more importantly, it gives it a technology for a market that its channel is uniquely positioned to serve - home users. ?Microsoft will address the channel and the home market because that?s where it is strong,? commented Vincent de Gennaro, vice president for Emea at Pilot Software, which is also looking at the potential of Web warehousing for its own Olap tools. ?Our own Web strategy is two-fold - sophisticated tools that can be downloaded by remote but expert users, and a few basic screens that consumers can use at home.?
The general public are getting used to the idea of running simple queries on the Internet. Compuserve now publishes data on the schools performance league tables, for instance, but for parents to really make use of this, they need a simple Olap tool to ask questions such as ?which is the best school in the Manchester area?? or ?do girls? schools average higher grades in science??. This is what the Web warehouse evangelists are promising - enabling non-computer literate consumers the chance not just to access information and define categories of data, but to ask it questions. The motive is clearly commercial gain, but it could make the Internet a great deal more useful, especially when access to such query tools can be via public kiosks, telephone or televisions This may be destroying the free and easy ethos of the Net, but it may also make it a tool that is useful to the busy general public rather than just professional researchers and addicted surfers.
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