Search: The Wheel Keeps on a Turnin’
March 30, 2008
In the late 1990s, I learned about a news aggregator. The company was Retrieval Technologies. The company’s founder had a great idea–aggregate news and make it available in real time. The product was News Machine. Among its features were in 1995 on-the-fly classification. In retrospect, News Machine was a proprietary version of today’s RSS (really simple syndication).
That company was acquired by an outfit called Sagemaker in 1999. Sagemaker was one of the first companies providing a dashboard, vertical business intelligence, and the New Machine’s real-time updates–on a Microsoft Windows platform.
The idea was that the Intranet was “a management tool”. Instead of search, Sagemaker provided users with personalization tools. The idea was that a “one size fits all” approach to search and retrieval was not what companies wanted., The Sagemaker system federated information from behind-the-firewall sources and external sources. The public Internet could be harvested. The system’s could also ingest analyst reports and make those available to Sagemaker users. Sagemaker called these types of for-fee, third-party materials “branded content”. On the back end, Sagemaker included a usage tracking system. At the time, I thought it was quite robust, and it offered the type of granularity that online Web search systems now have in place.
A Forward-Looking Approach to Search
In my files I located this overview of the Sagemaker architecture. The acronym EIP stands for Enterprise Integration Platform. The idea is that functions–what Sagemaker called “card slots–were plugged into the EIP. XML was the lingua franca of the system. Java was used for the messaging service and the server was based on Java. Sagemaker, therefore, was a pioneer in merging Java servers with Windows. More intriguing was that parts of the Sagemaker service were hosted; that is, the functions ran from the cloud. Other functions–the graphical interface and the code that was installed on the licensee’s premises–were Windows.
I find that this approach was unable to generate sufficient traction to sweep the enterprise market. Sagemaker competed with Plumtree (now part of BEA, which is now part of Oracle) and Documentum, which is now part of EMC, the storage company turned into tech conglomerate.
Even the Sagemaker interface was forward-looking. I found this screen shot in my files. Despite its almost 10 years out of sight, I find it easy to comprehend. Personalization would, of course, make it even more useful to a user.
Sagemaker found itself absorbed into divine Interventures in 2001. Publisher of my new study Beyond Search, Frank Gilbane reported in his content management news service:
divine interVentures, inc. announced that it will acquire enterprise information portal solutions company Sagemaker, Inc., the first acquisition in divine’s previously-announced strategy to consolidate companies in the most promising digital economy sectors. The all-stock deal, valued at about $16.5 million, is expected to be completed by late February. Sagemaker will complement more than a dozen associated companies in divine’s enterprise information portal solution. divine also will tap into relationships with its strategic partners, beginning with a separately announced strategic alliance with Computer Associates to jointly develop and market a combined portal solution. divine will integrate CA’s Jasmine( Portal technology with Sagemaker’s offerings and the applications and services of other divine associated companies to create a complete enterprise information portal.
Sagemaker the Harvard Business School Regimen
Let’s step back and see what we have learned about this particular “beyond search” service. Keep in mind that I think Sagemaker was on the right track almost a decade ago in its approach. Sagemaker was a young hunting dog on quail hunt but kept sniffing at Pathfinder’s smelly moccasin, not the quarry.
First, Sagemaker understood that it needed technology to round out its business intelligence approach. In the best tradition of open-minded companies, Sagemaker bought Retrieval Technologies, Inc., making its founder the chief technologist at Sagemaker. On a management yardstick, Sagemaker avoided the “not invented here” problem and recognized that Retrieval Technologies’ founder was a wizard.
Second, Sagemaker understood that most users don’t want to run key word queries. Users want to access information that is germane to what they get paid to do. The interface was easily customized using point-and-click options like those on public Web personalization services like Yahoo’s. When I first saw the Sagemaker customization options, I saw a real genetic connection between what Yahoo’s engineers used to make personalization dead easy and Sagemaker’s approach. In the late 1990s, personalization was still a relatively new concept in organizations just coming to grips with search and retrieval.
Third, Sagemaker federated content. As I write this, federation remains a major challenge for organizations. Most information technology professionals don’t understand the problems of normalizing heterogeneous content objects until the search system chokes and sinks to its knees. The jazzy sounding MBA speak that passes for search marketing hops right over this problem. Sagemaker’s engineers had this problem under control based on my tests of the system in 1999 and 2000.
Fourth, Sagemaker gave licensees a way to put high-priced third party content from outfits such as Thomson’s Investext in front of Sagemaker users. Sagemaker even used the logos of the analyst firms and investment banks creating this financial drivel so users could recognize the source of information. A red bull logo allowed a customer to recognize a Merrill Lynch report quicker than a screen of graphic-free ASCII.
Fifth, Sagemaker did the normal sales work–really eager sales people, news releases, brochures, trade shows, and industry participation.
Sagemaker couldn’t generate enough money to grow, invest in research and development, and keep the stakeholders happy. divine Interventures recognized an opportunity. Sagemaker was acquired. divine Interventures, in turn, fell into a financial decrepitude, Andrew “Flip” Filipowski repositioned the company as a firm engaged in software, not an incubator of start ups. In 2003, the company’s assets were sold at an auction after declaring bankruptcy.
What Does This Case Teach Me about Search?
Sagemaker seems to have been a pioneer in the notion of an information platform. Today’s vendors may not realize that their use of the term platform follows in the Sagemaker bird dog’s paw prints. I find it interesting to read in news releases and company Web logs about companies who claim to be breaking new ground when in my view, these companies are imitating Sagemaker. The similarity in the marketing jabber between some of the best-known vendors’ marketing chatter and Sagemaker’s is downright spooky. Maybe it is telepathy or one of those beyond-the-grave séances? One lesson, then, is that Sagemaker’s platform positioning is alive and well today. For a recent example, read this Web log posting and let me know what you think.
Second, Sagemaker did a nifty, personalized interface. I’ve just finished my new study Beyond Search. I looked at dozens and dozens of interfaces created by vendors from more than eight countries. I think the Sagemaker dashboard has most of them beat on three fronts. [a] Sagemaker allowed fine-grained personalization. [b] Content was federated and displayed in a way that allowed me to see the provenance or origin of the content at a glance. [c] Data refreshed in real time, just like today’s RSS, Web 2.0 “inventions”.
Third, Sagemaker used hybrid technology. Unix and Linux where it made sense and Windows where it made sense. The company took the same approach to code. Java for server-side tasks, and the more accessible VisualStudio code for graphical jobs. I found the Sagemaker pragmatism refreshing a decade ago, and I think some search vendors might want to think about practicality instead of a zealot’s approach to a specific way of solving a problem.
Turning to the Future
I find the Sagemaker case containing a darker message as well. A company can do the right things and fail. The market may not be willing to pay for a beyond search system like Sagemaker’s. If a customer does pay, that customer may chaff at the costs and complexity. The customer may stop paying for upgrades, consulting services, and engineering fixes. When that happens, the vendor faces some very, very difficult choices. These range from fudging the books to hide days-sales-outstanding data from stakeholders to seeking a fire sale. Other vendors may invent new ways to describe their system, in effect, putting a new collar on an addled hunting dog.
These interesting actions are taking place at this time in today’s market with products and services that are the direct descendants of Sagemaker. There may be no genetic transfer of code, but the lineage is the same. In ancient Rome an adult politico without a suitable heir could adopt a grown man to be his “son”. There was no genetic transfer, but the connection solved the problem of succession. We know how well that worked once Augustus died in CE 14. Rome muddled forward with some real Julian winners.
I think a parallel might exist between Sagemaker and its adopted children. This inherent weakness of succession gives me something to watch as Autonomy’s Pan Enterprise announcement plays out against the Microsoft acquisition of Fast Search & Transfer. Even Intel’s and SAP’s investments in Endeca warrant notice. If these firm’s find themselves in the “paw prints” of Sagemaker, what will be the future of SAS Institute’s purchase of Teragram? What will be the future of new comers to the “beyond search” arena? Will venture firms pump money into the “next big thing” emerging from university information retrieval laboratories? Will Google be able to shake off the rising concerns about its ability to grow revenue from behind-the-firewall search when online ad revenues stop to catch their breath? Will IBM’s scattershot approach to behind-the-firewall search take the field in victory? Will the retiring and shy Oracle SES10g search system show its colors in the killing field? With more than 150 companies in the search and content processing space, I think the Sagemaker case most instructive.
Sagemaker’s management team upon witnessing the death of divine may well have asked, “Tantaene animis caelestibus irae?” [Is there so much anger in the minds of the gods?, Vergil's Aeneid] When customer’s don’t pay their search and retrieval bills, the customers are today’s gods making their wrath known.
Stephen Arnold, March 30, 2008