The Curator

Doug Rowan [2.25.97]
Topic:

 We create tools and we are molded by our use of them. In our lifetime technology has changed the world as it changes our minds. Consider the great power in new imaging techniques made possible through technological development. One example: during the moon landing in the late '60s I recall the stunning televised image of the earth as seen from the moon: night and day at the same time -- all times all the time -- no matter what the time. And my watch told me the correct time was 3 pm.

A generation later, the advent of the PC and the current communications revolution are changing our worlds and our minds to such an extent that the biggest change is the rate of change. Nowhere is this more evident than in the graphical imaging power of today's desktop machines.

Corbis is a company whose headquarters is outside Seattle in Bellevue, Washington. They also have offices in New York and London. The business is building a digital visual library, and it's an endeavor that's been underway for almost 7 years. According to Doug Rowan, president of Corbis, it has accelerated quite a bit in the last three years, and the company ended 1996 with nearly one million high resolution photographs richly catalogued in the library.

The central concept of Corbis is to provide a very rich set of digital visual images that attempt to capture the entire human experience throughout history, so it includes such diverse topics as fine art, science, nature, technology, wild life, history, celebrity, sports, etc. Corbis licenses pictures for people to use in print and electronic publishing and produces CD-ROM products such as "Leonardo da Vinci", "FDR", and "The Passion for Art."

Doug Rowan, president and CEO of Corbis, worked for 22 years at IBM in a variety of marketing positions. He left IBM 12 years ago and since that time has worked in several companies which did imaging on the desktop. It was that 12 years and that journey that gave him an obsession with the technology of digital content, and the way that digital content is going to change communication. He was an engineer who got drawn into sales and marketing, and he's been returning to technology every since.  

 JB: So what's new about the Corbis concept?

ROWAN: What's new is that the whole premise of Corbis is to take pictures, put them in a digital form, and make the access to them, that is the search and finding and use of them, quite different from the prior model of the way pictures were used, which was in film form. So everything at Corbis is about digital. The pictures are digital, the data is digital, the access is digital. The customer search is digital, the viewing of the potential selections, whether it be for entertainment, education, or professional licensing use-these are all digital. It is of a size that is unique, and the very nature of the way the pictures are organized is quite unique. In fact, we like to think that Corbis is really about three different elements: It's about content, which are the pictures themselves; it's about context, which is the way the pictures relate to one another and to the larger bodies of information that the pictures are a part of; and then it's about storytelling. There are major efforts at Corbis in each of these three areas, content, context, and storytelling.

In a world of atoms, in a film world as we call it, it was a challenge of a type to bring pictures to life, and in a way they were brought to life in various forms of publications-such as Life Magazine. In the digital world they can be brought to life with audio, with video, and with other techniques that allow one to explore them in a manner that wasn't possible before in print. For example, my wife and I have been long-term subscribers to the National Geographic, and I always had the feeling when I read National Geographic that I would have liked them to have printed certain pictures larger than the ones they chose. I really didn't have that capability; an editor made the choices for me. In a digital world, I will be able to take a subject, such as volcanoes, and I'll be able to explore the aspects that interest me, and to the level of detail that I want, tailored for me, and not created by an editor who anticipated what I would want to see.

JB: How does this play out in terms of the products you bring to market?

ROWAN: From a storytelling standpoint, Corbis has created six very unusual products in CD-ROM form, the latest of which are a title called Leonardo da Vinci, and one on Roosevelt called FDR. So we are already taking the pictures of Corbis and putting this into a very new form that is a cross between education and entertainment. So that's really happening today. The first of the titles we produced was on the Barnes Collection; it's called The Passion for Art. While the Barnes Collection itself was rather hidden from view for many years, what we try to do in the CD-ROM is to take the wonderful paintings and to take Barnes himself, and build a context, build a story around, so that when you look at the wonderful Matisse dance mural you learn about Matisse, you learn about the correspondence he had with Barnes, you learn about the fact that he completed the painting only to realize that it didn't fit and he had to start all over, after a year and a half, and-so you can do things in the electronic area that are quite magical in terms of the broader context.

JB: I am grateful for that. I find it painful to stand for hours in crowds.

ROWAN: One of the things that we've always tried to make sure people understood is that the electronic version of a painting will never duplicate the painting, will never duplicate the work of art, but it can greatly enhance our understanding of the subject. So that when I first attended a Picasso show, years ago in New York, I didn't understand Picasso, and it was difficult to relate to him at any stage of his life, let alone the cubism. Now, as I've gotten to understand him better, or if we can synthesize art into a form that enhances our understanding of what the artist was trying to accomplish, then the meaning becomes much richer.    

JB: Let's talk about your background. How did you get to Corbis?

ROWAN: I grew up in the Northeast-my undergraduate education was in electrical engineering and I received an MBA both at Cornell. I worked for 22 years at IBM in a variety of marketing positions. I left IBM 12 years ago and since that time have worked in several companies who were doing imaging on the desktop. The first of these was a work station manufacturer, and we were doing some very interesting applications on Unix workstations around imaging on the desktop. I worked at Ampex, I was president of a company in Berkeley called AXS that was really doing a set of applications that were not dissimilar to those we have underway at Corbis, and it was really that 12 years and that journey that gave me an obsession with the technology of digital content, and the way that digital content is going to change communication. I was fortunate enough to be a candidate for, and be selected for this position at Corbis. I was an engineer who got drawn into sales and marketing, and I've been returning to technology every since.

JB: Are you pursuing newly created images or are you going to mostly an archive?

ROWAN: Corbis has a very strong commitment to the rights of artists, and overall the archive is about 5% about fine art, be it older material or more recent material. The paintings of artists that lived after 1950 is protected in various ways in different countries, but there's a strong degree of protection by the artists and the artists' estates over that material. So we have done some work with artists who lived after 1950, but it is somewhat more difficult and-or I should say there are other considerations that need to be worked with. We do have some material from a number of people who have lived in that period. In fact, in A Passion for Art, the work of Picasso, and of a number of other contemporary French artists, are included on the CD, and we worked with those estates to gain the permission to include their images on the CD.

JB: What percentage of business is devoted to CD-ROM storytelling?

ROWAN: There are really two business parts of Corbis today-one is the licensing of pictures for use in print and electronic publishing products, and that represents probably 70% of our revenue today; the other 30% comes from the CD-ROM side and these six titles now that we have in the marketplace.

The Leonardo title, which we thought long and hard about whether it would be successful, is off to a very fast start-aided by the exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. That exhibition is now in Paris and will go to the Seattle Art Museum in the fall of '97. It is apparent, both in the U.S. and in Europe that there is a tremendous amount of interest in Leonardo, and I think we've explored the subject in a way never done before.

I'd love to give you an example of what can be done and we did with the Leonardo material that simply wasn't possible before. Leonardo wrote a series of documents throughout his life, and they're known as notebooks or Codices. The Codex Leicester, which is one of those notebooks, was exhibited in New York and, like his others, is written backwards, by Leonardo, in ancient Italian. The most commonly held theory is that he wrote backwards because he was left-handed, and was constrained by the writing materials available to him in the early 1500's. He wrote The Codex Leicester between 1505 and 1509.

What we've done on the CD is put the entire codex there, so there are some 72 pages with all the wonderful diagrams, some of them very well known, and we allow you to mirror, and then to lay across on the screen something that we call a Codescope, which translates the codex into either English, French or Italian and soon into German. Keeping all the diagrams intact, you can move the codescope over the manuscript and see it in the language that makes sense to you, at the same time preserving the wonderful texture and sweep of hand of his actual writing that went into this manuscript. The Codescope could not have been accomplished until the advent of current computer technology.. You could translate the codex, but could never be able to see together the combination of the original with something you can really read.

JB: So why isn't it now known as the Gates Codex?

ROWAN: The codex had been known for hundreds of years as the Codex Leicester. When Armand Hammer purchased it, he changed its name to the Codex Hammer. When it was purchased in December of 1994 by Bill Gates, he changed the name of the document back to the name by which it was most well-known, the Codex Leicester, after the Earl of Leicester.

There is no other codex named after an individual, and this is the only codex of da Vinci that is in private hands. So it is kind of special.

Since Bill bought it it's been on tour. It was exhibited first in Venice, then in Milan, then in Rome. It came back and rested for a little back at Christies, and then went into the exhibition in New York. So it has not been at Bill's house, yet,-it will come there after it leaves France, for a short time, before again parts-and all of it-go out on exhibition again. Bill's intention is to preserve it, have some of his own access to it, but predominantly utilize it to give other people access. One of the nice things about the exhibition in NY is that you can see the codex itself, and then you can move to a computer station that's adjacent and you can read the same words in English, going in the right direction, that you haven't been able to see on the actual codex.

JB: Can we talk about CD-ROM business for a bit? It seems to be in a sorry state. At the Milia conference in Cannes, you see the same small companies exhibiting the same CD's year after year whereas at the Frankfurt Book Fair, agents and publishers are always showing new proposals and books. In America, it seems very hard for a company to survive by publishing CD-ROMs on intelligent subjects.

ROWAN: Corbis has created CD-ROM products to celebrate the Corbis library. We really have only done titles where the pictures that provide the predominant use for the title come from the library. We had the paintings from the Barnes Collection in the library before we ever decided even to undertake the project on that.

The CD-ROM business is interesting. The market for what I would call higher-brow, or cultural, CD-ROM products, is a very weak one at the moment in the United States. The CD-ROM market in the US is currently being dominated by games, by reference titles, and on a selective basis by children's titles, and those three categories are occupying the bulk of the retail distribution space. That has made life difficult for the distributors of titles such as those Corbis produces, and that will cause a bit of a shakeout within the industry. If you consider what a consumer faces walking into a store looking at CD-ROM titles-they have to make a judgment based on a box. They really are not given an opportunity to try the product. They can't, as you can with a book, open it a read a few pages. And so in a way the industry, both the manufacturers like Corbis and the distributors, have really failed to understand what the consumer's need is. So as thousands of products became available, competing for a tenth or less that number of slots of shelf space, the consumer was often burned.

I watched one time a woman in Paris looking at one of our products in French in one hand, and another product in her other hand, and she was clearly trying to decide which to buy. I knew both products very well, she needed to make the decision from the box, and I resisted the temptation to be yet one more ugly American walk up and tell her which one she should buy. I never stayed to find out which one she bought. But I know that's a terrible dilemma for the consumer. What I hope will happen is that through online supplement to future titles, and through a better job being done by the distribution side, with manufacturer's help, that the consumer can have a taste before they buy, and therefore make better choices.

The people that have purchased our product love them. We've actually just recently done a mailing to the people that have registered our products, and they're snapping up additional ones like crazy, so they like the experience, they like the products. But it's hard for the consumer to decide what to buy in this sea of choices. On the other hand, in Europe, the CD-ROM business for cultural titles is much stronger. France is a market with a much smaller installed base than the US. Yet we may sell more copies there of a single product, such as Leonardo. 

JB: What about profit?

ROWAN: We do CD-ROMs to make money. A Passion for Art has already become a profitable title for us. 1996, the sales of this year, has become much tougher for all of our products. But we're in these businesses to make money, and I believe that on an international basis we will be better than break even on each of our products.

JB: What kinds of distribution channels are you selling into?

ROWAN: We're doing a lot of different things. For example, with the Leonardo da Vinci title, it's on sale at the museum shops and through a variety of catalogues. We also have an active effort to sell it on a direct basis. The recent Time Magazine article that talked about both the FDR product and the Leonardo product, gave people a way to access Corbis directly, and that's has helped tremendously. We're in bookstores; probably the best channel for us to date in that regard has been Borders-that has been very successful. I just wish they had ten thousand stores, instead of the numbers they have. They've been a wonderful distributor for us. We also are quite active with the computer software channel, although that is the channel that has become most cluttered with a large number of products and increasingly is being dominated by games. Some reference and some kids titles, as I mentioned. Internationally the distribution channels are slightly different. The Europeans are not nearly so voracious for games, so when you walk into a computer software store in Paris, or in Germany, you'll see a higher percentage of the titles being sold are cultural titles, which is a good thing for the manufacturers like Corbis both that are US based and those in Europe.

JB: What about competition from the Web and the inherent limitation of the CD medium.

ROWAN: It's interesting-we think of our titles from the standpoint of the number of hours of playability that are in them. And they range anywhere from a conservative 8 hours to as many as 20 hours or more. I believe if you're very careful, and we have been, you can give the same pick-up-from-where-I-left-off ability with the CD-ROM almost that you can with a magazine. Admittedly, you have to have your computer running and you have to start it up, but it's quite possible to do that-I personally have done that quite a bit with one of our titles that is a favorite of mine which is called Critical Mass-it's on the making of the atomic bomb and the people who were at Los Alamos. I spent some time exploring Richard Feynman through the title, and I looked at letters that he wrote to his wife when she was dying of cancer, approaching the Trinity test, and various documents, and the travail that he went through when he was popular and unpopular and then popular again. After I finished Feynman I went back and picked up reading the article on Oppenheimer, I did the same thing with him.

The accessibility is there, if you're very careful about it. In fact let me make another comment: I've read surveys that indicate that consumers are much more satisfied with the experience of using a CD-ROM than they are, today anyway, satisfied with the experience of using the World Wide Web. I spend quite a bit of time in both. The problems of available bandwidth and of the ability of the sites that I'm visiting on the Web to have a variation in demand, gives a sort of an intermittency that is quite frustrating. I can turn the page of a magazine when I want to-I can actually turn the page in the CD-ROM metaphor equally. I can do that on the Web, but I don't know how long I'm going to have to wait for it to happen. Sometimes it's very quickly; sometimes it's slowly. The Web has great promise, and Corbis is making a very large investment in it, for the future, but it hasn't quite come together to provide the same either learning or information or entertainment experience that one can get from the CD-ROM.

JB: What about "fat pipes." Is bandwidth a huge issue for you?

ROWAN: It's absolutely a huge issue. But let me address something. We spend roughly a half million dollars, total cost, producing a CD-ROM title. And that CD-ROM title may have 20 plus hours of playability on it. So we're creating what we think and what the reviewers tell us, is a very compelling CD-ROM experience-a very compelling entertainment and education experience for around half a million dollars, for ten to 15 to 20 hours of result. We have several people who are interested in repurposing that material, either for television or for other types of online features that are lower in interactivity; that are more semigraphic and more linear, and that's something that we think we will do, and we think has the potential of providing a better return for the types of investments we're making in producing the product.

Last year at Intermedia I was asked to participate in Stewart McBride's three-minute thing. What I was asked to do was to show three minutes of Critical Mass. I thought I was doing well to get it down to ten minutes at TED, but to get it to three minutes! But I had it totally rehearsed, and I timed out what I could do in three minutes-and I ran exactly 180 seconds, three minutes. I watched other people who were showing things they were doing on the Web, and they were dead, because they had no control over the time, and time was really their enemy. That is part of the consumer experience; that what the Web has to be is as reliable in a sense as a CD-ROM. And when it is, it may replace it.

JB: Problem: I like to do my serious thinking lying down. Unfortunately, my powerbook has no CD-ROM drive.

ROWAN: That's a very interesting observation. Bob Stein gave me an idea to try, was reading Jurassic Park while lying in bed with the powerbook on my chest. And with my wife laughing in the background I went at that seriously. I tried it for about 5 minutes, and I said wait a minute, this-you know, the weight, the heat, the whole thing-that wasn't what it was all about. But I do think that it is possible to invent a home based product which has all the convenience of a television with the ability to have it interactive and the advantages which the computer can bring, and that certainly what a number of companies are trying to do. 

JB: What kind of revenue model do you see in the near future?

ROWAN: Let me comment on that-there are three parts to the Corbis strategy. One is the creation of CD-ROM products, and it hasn't been easy to make money there, but we believe it is possible to make money if one does some extraordinary things both in the development and the distribution of products.

A second part is the professional licensing business, which is being pursued actively by Corbis, in a different way than the existing other stock agencies pursue it-they do it through film, predominantly, we do it in a digital manner exclusively, and that's a business that we are growing and that we can make a lot of money in, and that we're going to go after quite aggressively.

The third part we call online publishing, and that's the one where the business models aren't clear yet. We need to be patient relative to that segment. We have done some things today that we think are very unusual online, and the energy we're putting into that is increasing substantially for 1997. At the same time we don't expect to be able to either see clearly or to cross the profitability line on this third part for some period to come. Getting to profitability and having a business model will take a maturity of advertising within that electronic space; it'll take a maturing-maybe not maturity-of merchandising, of how people can see the products they want to buy and buy them that way, and it'll take in our case a maturing of the way that people access information, be it for education purposes, for entertainment purposes, or to be informed.

One of the visions that Bill Gates had in setting up Corbis was the high school student, doing a term paper, needing a picture of a great person, say Churchill, to use in that paper, and being able to come into Corbis, find it, and for a nominal fee be able to use it, and have that to enhance the term paper that they've created. We know that that is something that has value; we know it's something we can do; how that works overall to provide profitability for that segment of that leg we're not sure, and we need to figure out, and we're going to figure out, but we're going to have to be patient with it, just as some of the other attempts that other companies have made to make money online need to be very patient as well, because some of these dynamics aren't worked out. Until there's a natural way for you and me at home that is comfortable for us, that doesn't feel like we're at night sitting down again in front of the same computer screen that we've escaped and left at our workplace, until it becomes very natural and part of what we do, then it will be hard for many businesses to find a way to make money.

JB: That will happen as the Web environment becomes "the" environment. It becomes another real world.

ROWAN: Let me give you an example that's very current and that we're very excited about. There's fairly well-known company in Seattle called Starbucks. Starbucks is thinking a lot about its stores in the future, and they have thought about the people who come into those stores, and how they differ over the course of a day. And what they want to do is create an experience for them, while they're in the store, buying their coffee drinks, that is different. So Starbucks built a store of the future at Comdex, and they built it inside the Intel booth. They had five large, flat monitors-screens-and they came to Corbis to ask if they could use some Corbis images, to help create the experience that they saw for their stores in the future. We did that. So there are Corbis images being used on these screens at Comdex as we speak, and that is a rather maybe unusual use, but a rather interesting use, of imagery, and there may be other businesses and other venues where a similar kind of a model can be used.

When Jackie Kennedy Onassis died, which was shortly after I joined Corbis, we had a screen-saver for all of the 200 or so systems at Corbis using pictures from the archive. When Jackie died, I was looking at amazing pictures of her on the screen. And I looked at that and I said, This is a product. I mean there is an application here for an ability for a person to have information-in that case it was about that great personality, and I saw pictures of her that I'd never seen before and that would have value to a person, and of course we need to figure out how to package that and make that work, for the people that are partners with Corbis as well as for the consumer.

JB: Can you comment on the relationship between Corbis and Microsoft and also with Bill Gates.

ROWAN: Corbis is a private company; it's owned entirely by Bill Gates, and there is no connection with Microsoft, other than the fact that Bill is the chairman of Corbis and the chairman of Microsoft. So we work hard to sell our products to Microsoft, and we buy their products for our use as we buy from other people in the marketplace. So it's very separate. Bill is very closely tied to the vision and the strategy at Corbis; he spends a number of hours each month with me and the other managers at Corbis, and is a very active component of what we do. Not in the day-to-day sense, but from the standpoint of strategy and vision.