Compaq founder pushes for academic library online

E-books died, but e-publishing will live on if the content is right, say those behind Questia Media.

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
3 min read
CARLSBAD, Calif.--Ever wonder where Compaq founder Rod Canion is? He's with Questia Media, which wants to bring a university-class library to a high school near you.

The Houston-based company is gathering academic and textbook publishers like John Wiley and Sons and putting their works on the Web. For $20 a month, or $100 for a full-year subscription, individuals can get full access to peer-review articles, textbooks and other academic publications online. High schools can access the database too, for about 85 percent of the cost, said CEO Troy Williams.

Rod Canion Rod Canion

At the moment, the roughly 150,000 Questia subscribers can download 65,000 books accessible through the site, he said.

Canion is an investor and serves as chairman. Canion and Williams are attendees at PC Forum, a three-day conference taking place here through Tuesday.

The company is trying to navigate through the errors of e-publishing discovered back in the go-go Internet days of the 1990s when companies dreamed of selling novels and other tomes on the Net for people to read as portable e-books. Questia was founded back then too and endured layoffs, but has the same focus now that it did then and has survived.

The e-publishing dream failed, in part, said Williams, because few people wanted to read novels on a heavy, expensive piece of hardware when paperbacks were available. Questia differs from that model because it focuses on often hard-to-find research periodicals that people need to consult for conducting research, rather than pleasure reading. People are more willing, Williams said, to read this sort of information on a desktop or notebook.

A substantial portion of the material available through Questia is copyright and published with permission of the copyright holders. Still, the company must negotiate through a variety of contingencies with publishers. Giving high school libraries discount subscriptions, which all students at the school can access, is easy: Academic publishers generally want students to be interested in research, and the students wouldn't subscribe to most of the publications (or buy the textbooks) offered through Questia anyway, Williams said. The hope is that high schoolers who used the service through their school library will become individual subscribers eventually.

PC Forum 2006

Selling subscriptions to college libraries is different. Many academic publishers rely on selling subscriptions to fellow institutions. Those deals, however, are being hammered out. Google, for example, has cut deals to publish the works in the libraries of a few select universities but the plan has run into controversy because of protests from authors, who claim that the university libraries do not have the legal right to let the search giant republish copyright material.

Although most people haven't heard of Questia, Google has. Questia was one of the early big purchasers of AdWords on Google. CEO Eric Schmidt called once a few years ago to ask who they were and what they were up to, Williams recalled.

Canion's involvement in Questia came through Houston Technology Center, an incubator he is a part of. Canion is also an investor in BlueArc, a storage start-up.