The Internet has fundamentally impacted every segment of the publishing industry. But for data publishers, a parallel development that is not often discussed has had as significant an impact. This development, stated simply, is that personal computing, with little fanfare, has finally begun delivering on its promise.

What do I mean by this? That personal computers, and in particular their software, are finally able to do most of the things we were always told they could do, and do them simply and painlessly. That means users - in particular average users - can now confidently download, manipulate, manage and output data. And when people can readily unlock the value of data, they not only buy more of it, they are willing to pay more for it as well. The Internet has freed us from having to communicate with incompatible systems. Hardware advances have brought vast amounts of processing power, memory and disk capacity to almost every computer removing another layer of constraint. Software advances have resulted in software that is easier to master, more stable and more capable than ever before. Our customers are all now routinely working with data in ways that would have been unimaginable just 15 years ago.

But have we licked all their issues and solved all their problems? Not quite yet. The emerging issue I see is that the rapid growth of hosted applications and cloud computing is creating a vast number of data silos - standalone software applications driven by standalone databases.

We are a small company, but despite that (perhaps because of that) we use a number of hosted applications for such things as accounting, bulk email distribution, online surveys, etc. We also subscribe to a number of online databases, and maintain our own in-house database as well. My constant ongoing frustration: none of these applications talk to each other. All these applications do, however, allow me to export my data to Excel or input data from Excel, making it the default format for data interchange. That works, but it's a variation on the old "sneaker nets" of years ago. It's not convenient, it's not efficient and it's prone to error.

There's a huge opportunity here for data publishers who recognize that no matter how powerful and robust their online applications are, they shouldn't be operated as islands. Design your application so relevant data can seamlessly enter and leave your application and you are positioning yourself to become a data hub for your customers. It's taking the concept of workflow integration to the next level: in addition to powering specific business activities, you can help companies centrally manage key datasets. It's a natural role for many data publishers to serve as central data platforms for their customer. But to excel in this area, we need to think beyond Excel.