Entopia: A Look Back in Time
February 16, 2008
Periodically I browse though my notes about behind-the-firewall systems, content processing solutions, and information retrieval start ups. I think Entopia, a well-funded content processing company founded in 1999, shut down, maybe permanently some time in 2006.
In my “Dormant Search Vendors” folder, I keep information about companies that had interesting technology but dropped off my watch list. A small number of search vendors are intriguing. I revisit what information I have in order to see if there are any salient facts I have overlooked or forgotten.
KangarooNet and Smart Pouches
Do you remember Entopia? The company offered a system that would key word index, identify entities and concepts, and allow a licensee to access information from the bottom up. The firm open its doors as KangarooNet. I noticed the name because it reminded me of the whimsical Purple Yogi (now Stratify). Some names lure me because they are off-beat if not too helpful to a prospective customer. I do recall that the reference to a kangaroo was intended to evoke something called a “smart pouch”. The founders, I believe, were from Israel, not Australia. I assumed some Australian tech wizards had crafted the “smart pouch” moniker, but I was wrong.
Do you know what a “smart pouch” is? The idea is that the kangaroo has a place to keep important items such as baby kangaroos. The Entopia “smart pouch” was a way to gather important information and keep it available. Users could share “smart pouches” and collaborate on information. Delicious.com’s bookmarks provide a crude analog of a single “smart pouch” function.
I recall contacting the company in 2000, but I had a difficult time understanding how the company’s system would operate at scale in an affordable way. Infrastructure and engineering support costs seemed likely to be unacceptably high. No matter what the proposed benefits of a system, if the costs are too high, customers are unwilling to ink a deal.
Shifting Gears: New Name, New Positioning
Entopia is a company name derived from the Greek word entopizo. For those of you whose Greek is a rusty, the verb means to locate or bring to light. Entopia’s senior technologists stressed that their K-Bus and Quantum systems allowed a licensee to locate and make use of information that would otherwise be invisible to some decision makers.
When I spoke with representatives of the company at one of the Information Today conferences in New York, New York, in 2005. I learned that Entopia was, according to the engineer giving me the demo, was “a third-generation technology”. The idea was that Entopia’s system would supplement indexing with data about the document’s author, display Use For and See Also references, and foster collaboration.
I noted that I also spoke with Entopia’s vice president of product management, David Hickman, a quite personable man as I recall. My notes included this impression:
Entopia wants to capture social aspects of information in an organization. Relationships and social nuances are analyzed by Entopia’s system. Instead of a person looking at a list of possibly relevant documents, the user sees the information in the context of the document author, the author’s role in the organization, and the relationships among these elements.
In my files, I found this screen shot of Entopia’s default search results display. It’s very attractive, and includes a number of features that systems now in the channel do not provide. For example, if you had access to Entopia’s system in 2006 prior to its apparent withdrawal from the market, you could:
- See concepts, people, and sources related to your query. These appear in the left hand panel on the screen shot below
- Get a results list with the creator, source, date, and relevance score for each item clearly presented. In contrast to the default displays used by some of the company’s in my Beyond Search study, Entopia’s interface is significantly more advanced
- The standard search box, a hot link to advanced search functions, and one-click access to saved searches keep important but little used functions front and center.
When the firm was repositioned in 2003, the core product was named, according to my handwritten notes, the “K-Bus Knowledge Extractor”. I think the “k” in K-Bus is a remnant of the original “kangaroo” notion. I wrote in my notes that Entopia was a spin out from an outfit called Omind and Global Catalyst Partners.
Other features of the Entopia system were:
- Support for knowledge bases, taxonomies, and controlled term lists
- An API and a software development kit
- Support for natural language processing
- Classification of content
- Enhanced metatagging
The K-Bus technology was enhanced with another software component called Quantum. The software system created a collaborative workspace. The idea was that system users to assemble, discuss, and manipulate the information processed by the K-Bus. This is the original SmartPouch technology that allows a user to gather information and keep it in a virtual workspace.
In my Entopia folder, I found white papers and other materials given to me by the company. Among the illustrations was this high-level view of the Entopia system.
Several observations are warranted even though the labels in the figure are not readable. First, licensees had to embrace a comprehensive information platform. In the 2005 – 2006 period, a number of content processing vendors had added the word “platform” to their marketing collateral. Entopia to its credit does a good job of depicting how significant an investment is required to make good on the firm’s assertions for discovering information.
Second, it is clear that the complex interactions required to make the system work as advertised cannot tolerate bottlenecks. A slow down in one component — for instance, the horizontal gray rectangle in the center of the diagram is the “Session Facade Beans” subsystem. If these processes slow down the Web framework in the horizontal blue box above the horizontal gray box slows down user access. Another hot spot is the Data Access Module — the gray rectangle below the horizontal gray rectangle just referenced. A problem in this component prevents the metadata from being accessed. In short, a heck of an infrastructure of systems, storage, and bandwidth availability are needed to keep the system performing at acceptable levels.
Finally, the complexity of the system appears to require on-site support and in some cases, technical support from Entopia. A licensee’s existing information technology staff could require additional headcount to manage this K-Bus architecture.
As I scanned these notes, now more than two years’ old, I was struck by the fact that Entopia was on the right track. The buzz about social search makes sense, particularly in an organization where one-to-one relationships occur out of a hierarchical organizational structure. Software can provide some context for knowledge workers who are often monads, responsible to other monads, not the organization as a whole.
Entopia wanted to blend expertise identification, content visualization, social network analysis, and content discovery into one behind-the-firewall system. I noted that the company’s system started at $250,000, and I assume the up-and-running price tag would be in the millions.
When I asked, “Who are Entopia’s customers?”, I learned that Saab, the US government, Intel, and Boeing were licensees. Those were blue-chip names, and I thought that these firms’ use of the the K-Bus indicated Entopia would thrive. Entopia was among the first search vendors to integrate with Salesforce.com. The system also allowed a licensee to invoke the Entopia functions within a Word document.
What Can We Learn?
Entopia seems to have gone dark quietly in the last half of 2006. My hunch is that the intellectual property of the company has been recycle. Entopia could be in operation under a different corporate name or incorporated as a proprietary system in other content processing systems. When I clicked on the Entopia.com Web address in my folder, a page of links appeared. Running queries on Live.com, Google, and Yahoo returned links to stale information. If Entopia remains in business, it is doing a great job of keeping a low profile.
If you read my essay “Power Leveling”, you know that two common challenges in search and content processing are getting caught in a programming maze. The need to solve a particular problem fails to meet a licensee’s needs. The second problem is that when the system developer assembles the local solutions, the overall result is not efficient. Instead of driving straight from Point A to Point B, the system iterates and explores every highway and by way. Performance becomes a problem. To get the system to go fast, capital investment is necessary. When licensees can’t or won’t spend more on hardware, the system remains sluggish.
Entopia, on the surface, appears to be an excellent candidate for further analysis. My cursory looks at the system in 2001, again in 2005, and finally in 2006 revealed considerable prescience about the overall direction of the content processing market. Some of the subsystems were very clever and well in advance of what other vendors had on the market. The use of the social metadata in search results was quite useful. When these clever subsystems were hooked together, my recollection is now hazy, but I had noted that response time was sluggish. Maybe it was. Maybe it wasn’t. The point is that a complex system like that illustrated above would require on-going work to keep operating at peak performance.
Unfortunately, I don’t have an Entopia system to benchmark against the systems of the 24 companies profiled in Beyond Search. I wanted to include this Entopia information, but I couldn’t justify a historical look back when there was so much to communicate about systems now in the channel.
In Beyond Search, I don’t discuss the platforms available from Autonomy , Endeca, Fast Search & Transfer. IBM, and Oracle. I do mention these companies to frame the new players and little known up and comers that figure in Beyond Search. I would like to conclude this essay with several broad observations about the perils of selling organizations platforms.
First, any company selling a platform is essentially trying to obtain a controlling or central position in the licensee’s organization. A platform play is one that has a potentially huge financial pay off. A platform is a sophisticated “lock in”. Once the platform is in position, competitors have a difficult time making headway against the incumbent platform.
Second, the platform is the core product of IBM (NYSE:IBM), Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT), and Oracle (NASDAQ:ORCL). One might include SAP (NYSE:SAP) in this list, but I will omit the company because it’s in transition. These Big Three have the financial and market clout to compete with one another. Smaller outfits p9ushing platforms have to out market, out fox, and out deliver any of the Big Three. After all, why would an Oracle DBA want another information processing platform in an all-Oracle environment. IBM and Microsoft operate with almost the same mind set. Smaller platform vendors — perhaps we could include Autonomy (LON:AU) and Endeca in this category — are likely to face increasing pressure to mesh seamlessly with whatever a licensee has. If this is correct, Fast Search’s ESP has a better chance going forward than Autonomy. It’s too early to determine if Endeca’s deal with SAP will pay similar dividends. You can decide for yourself if Autonomy can go toe-to-tow with the Big Three. From my observation post in rural Kentucky, Autonomy will have to shift into a higher gear in 2008.
Third, super-advanced systems are vulnerable in business environments where credit is tight, sales are in slow or low growth cycles, and a licensee’s technical staff may be understaffed and overworked.
In conclusion, I think Entopia was a forward-thinking company. Its technology anticipated market needs now more clearly discernable. Its system was slick, anticipating some of the functionality of the Web 2.0 boom. The company demonstrated a willingness to abandon overly cute marketing for more professional product and company nomenclature. The company did apparently have one weakness — too little revenue. Entopia, if you are still out there, please, let me know.
Stephen Arnold, February 16, 2008