A Novelist Helps Explain Search Software Erosion

November 29, 2013

Orson Scott Card turned up in a Hacker News item this morning. I followed the link because I was curious about a sci-fi novelist’s views about the death of software companies. As I scanned the short essay, I realized that Mr. Card had touched on several points germane to search, content processing, and analytics companies. I recommend you read the essay that is available on a Carnegie Mellon Web site.

The main idea is:

The environment that nurtures creative programmers kills management and marketing types – and vice versa.

The essay concludes with a passage that is particularly thought provoking:

He [the programmer] suddenly finds that alien creatures control his life. Meetings, Schedules, Reports. And now someone demands that he PLAN all his programming and then stick to the plan, never improving, never tweaking, and never, never touching some other team’s code.  The lousy young programmer who once worshiped him is now his tyrannical boss, a position he got because he played golf with some sphincter in a suit. The hive has been ruined. The best coders leave. And the marketers, comfortable now because they’re surrounded by power neckties and they  have things under control, are baffled that each new iteration of their software loses market share as the code bloats and the bugs proliferate.

The essay edges up to one of the characteristics of search, content processing, and analytics companies. A talented individual may have a great idea and there may be one, two, or a handful of others who convert capability into creation.

My team and I are reviewing profiles— actually case studies — of search and content processing vendors we have assembled over the last 20 or so years. Most of the vendors begin with a passion to solve a particular problem. For example, the Fulcrum Technologies company in Ottawa, Ontario. A group of innovators left one company, set up another, and then proceeded to bedevil the then market leader Verity.

Fulcrum opened in 1983. The product appears to be available today as a component in an OpenText enterprise solution. But who thinks about Fulcrum today? I am not sure if many, if any, of the original programmers are still working at the company 30 years later. Who runs the Fulcrum unit? What are the innovations it offers? Where is the tension and excitement of the Fulcrum – Verity face offs. Verity has been absorbed into Autonomy and Autonomy has been gobbled by Hewlett Packard. Fulcrum Ful/Text and the WAIS-based SearchServer migrated through an Italian outfit, PC Docs, then Hummingbird, and finally into OpenText.


Image from Cranberry Township. http://bit.ly/180M1il

Several observations:

  1. The vendors offering search and content processing solutions seem to have a very distinct trajectory that follows Mr. Card’s essay. I can’t think of many search and content processing vendor that has avoided some type of Gravity’s Rainbow trajectory
  2. Search technology seems to be resistant to innovation. The assertions of Fulcrum and Verity are as fresh and buzzwordy today as they were decades ago.

  1. Information retrieval remains one of the most difficult services to deliver to users. For that reason new companies enter the market and usually unwittingly rediscover, recycle, and repeat the arc that Mr. Card describes.

I am not grousing. I am surprised that our case studies, now being posted without any charge or registration requirement, are more than museum pieces. The cases explain the challenge of search and content processing in a still-useful way.

You can find the cases at www.xenky.com/vendor-profiles. Like search functionality, the marketing departments of the profiled firms have described systems in ways that are almost interchangeable. Recycling lives on in the search and content processing sector.

Stephen E Arnold, November 29, 2013


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