Two Palantir Profiles: Some Peculiar Omissions

October 26, 2020

Not long ago, I was interviewed for a “real” news story about Palantir which appeared in New York Magazine in late September 2020. That story — “Techie Software Soldier Spy: Palantir, Big Data’s scariest, most secretive unicorn, is going public. But is its crystal ball just smoke and mirrors?” — was chock full of information about Palantir Technologies. [1] Alas, the New York Times’s reporter never called me, but what’s new? On Sunday, October 25, 2020, the Times’s profile “The All Seeing Eye: Palantir became a tech giant by helping governments and law enforcement decipher vast amounts of data. Is it dangerous to let this software know so much?” appeared in print. Yep, another “real” news report about the company, and this one has nifty graphics.

There are some similarities between the two write ups. First, the origin story of Palantir is similar. For practical purposes, they are close enough for horse shoes. What seems to have slipped through the cracks is the information the Silicon Valley-centric team formed around Peter Thiel has been ignored. Some of these “founders” are quite fascinating individuals. Palantir was less a seeing stone than a step beyond what is now IBM’s i2 Analyst’s Notebook, one of the grandpeople of today’s policeware and intelware systems. [2] The differences between Analyst’s Notebook and Palantir Gotham can still trigger inter-agency memo battles among LE and intel professionals. But in terms of functionality, both ingest information and provide outputs useful to those interested in entities (banks, people, and other proper noun type things). Palantir anchored its system on techniques in use at a US intelligence agency more than a decade ago. i2 Ltd. based its approach around the work processes of UK law enforcement. Similar but different. Again, the differences are not germane beyond the point that i2 refined the use of software to assist UK LE. Palantir tailored an i2-type method for US intel professionals. That’s important to me and probably no one else.

Another similarity is that the theme of doing good runs through both write ups. Based on my limited knowledge, the “doing good” thing is indeed a factor for those working on Analyst’s Notebook and Palantir Gotham. Most people involved in LE and intel embrace the idea that bad actors can exert a negative influence on some society cohorts. Specialized software like i2 clones are useful, and they are not code confections I want to see available to bad actors. However, the “doing good” is often cheek by jowl with “making money.” Keeping control of proprietary features is also important. Plus, dropping a shroud over what these intelware systems can deliver is quite important in my opinion. Both write ups keep that shroud in place. That’s good.

A final similarity is the Lord of the Rings’ trope. The name Palantir, the seeing stone, the wonky fantastical terminology appear in both write ups. The angle of attack, however, is different in each story. The “real” journalist at the New York Times Magazine seems to have leaned heavily on what Alex Karp conveyed as the truth about himself and the company’s 17 year journal to the promised land of the IPO. The New York Magazine profile pulled information from Beltway insiders and old-fashioned research, none of that “we were classmates stuff.” Score one for New York Magazine team. But the net net is the same: Hard charging Palantirians labored to overcome established government contractors and won over the hearts and minds of LE and intel professionals.

When I reread both articles Sunday, October 25, 2020, I noted some factoids that did not appear in either write up. It is entirely possible that my 76 year old eyes missed or my creaky brain ignored some polished sentences. For that, I apologize.

Here’s what I noted as missing in action:

  1. I recall mentioning a couple of historical item’s about Palantir’s stroll to its IPO. Neither of these items merited inclusion in the final version of the article which was published and disseminated online. Did the New York Times’s journalist fail to uncover or elect to discard these events?
  2. Palantir’s method of working around established US government procurement procedures. Sure, there are references to providing software to those in theater, but that’s a darned important fact. It’s a bit like “move fast and break things” methods which have delivered the fine environment in which Silicon Valley companies thrive. i2, on the other hand, was and is a “play be the rules” outfit. That approach has been maintained by IBM even as today’s owner of Analyst Notebook has been unable to keep pace with other, more zippy investigative software solutions.
  3. Palantir ended up in court over the Dot ANB file format. This was a trade secret of i2 Ltd. I know because I did some tiny, unimportant work for i2 before it was sold off by its founder. In order to import Dot ANB files into Gotham, the seeing stone outfit needed a short cut. Palantirians found a semi-clever way to obtain this file format information. i2 Ltd. found out about file format fancy dancing, and a court battle ensured. Information about the litigation is scant, but the hassle was settled out of court and the terms of the deal were sealed. Some information is available in this Reuters’ story. Odd that this important litigation escaped the attention of the “real” journalists. It provides some insight into the actions of the hard-charging Palantirians.
  4. Palantir also allowed itself to become embroiled in what I call the HBGary misstep. You can wade through the unfamiliar players and locate the references to Facebook data and Palantir in “ChamberLeaks: Military Contractors Palantir And Berico Under Scrutiny.” Since Palantir presents a corporate story about law and order, the HBGary incident suggests that “law” and “order” may have a different meaning to some Palantirians in the “shire.”

None of these stories has been given an X-ray procedure. Why? [3] The research and analysis required to make sense of interface similarities and differences, legal jousting about file formats, or deals among the specialized services companies that serve LE and intel professionals are not going to find their way into “real” media. Maybe one of the crack MBA mills will produce a motivated whiz kid who will explore these three topics. (Guess what? There are more to uncover.)

From my point of view, Palantir’s current origin story in both Karp tales is entertaining. But like the omissions about Google (another Silicon Valley paragon), the information no one “remembers” or bothers to unearth reveal more about the Palantirians and their organization than the creative revisionism now circulating. What about those protests in front of Palantir’s Palo Alto office? I think it is like people conveniently not remembering the Google Yahoo settlement regarding ad technology? 

To some Silicon Valley, “in the same dorm” outfits, the past and its impacts are irrelevant to the thumbtyping generation. The here and now is what matters. With some stakeholders rolling in dough, the past may not exist. 

What’s the history of policeware and intelware history tell us about the future of Palantir Technologies? I am no master of prediction. I can’t predict if I will be around to see the end of the pandemic or the end of the week for that mater. Let me pose some questions, which are what got Socrates terminated with extreme poeticism. 

  1. Will Palantir be able to generate sufficient sustainable revenue to produce a profit? Note: It’s been 17 years to lose only half a billion if the published data are accurate? Plus, there are dozens of startups chasing the same modest pool of whales known to consume policeware and intelware.
  2. Will Palantir be able to catch up with vendors of intelligence software systems which have leapfrogged Gotham? (My estimates suggest there are about 300 customers on the scale of the CIA globally, and newcomers like some startups in Herzliya and suburban Virginia who are a heck of a lot less expensive to license, support, and tune. Deals with the fish bigger than carp are locked up and not in play. Some countries want their own equivalent to Analyst’s Notebook and Palantir Gotham. A deal may be unlikely no matter how much high school French a Silicon Valley pitch person uses in a presentation in Paris. There is competition today. In the late 1990s, Analyst’s Notebook faced fewer competitive threats.)
  3. Will Palantir, even with its move from Silicon Valley, become a Denver-type company with all the healthy goodness of a firm breathing fresh mountain air and rooting for the Broncos? Note: You can take the people out of Silicon Valley, but removing the Silicon Valley DNA may be like beating down Covid 19.

The Lord of the Rings was a fantasy if I recall a painful reading assignment from a class taught at the one-horse university I attended. I think this observation is semi-accurate: Where Palantir is concerned, magic and a rainbow are necessary. Some financially savvy humans are helpful as well.

The reality of Palantir’s dogged slog for 17 years is a bit more banal despite the “with it” persona of its public-facing wizard. The glow of that seeing stone’s glow is sufficiently bright to make it possible to read the digits on those cash accounts. What else is necessary?

Stephen E Arnold, October 26, 2020

Blog notes:

  1. i2 Ltd. was sold to a venture firm. Then IBM bought i2. Today’s Analyst’s Notebook is called “IBM i2 Analyst’s Notebook.”
  2. The “lack of context” about competition, market size, revenue, and number of  customers is fascinating. But neither writer had room for such irrelevancies. 
  3. My question is, “What is the logic of editorial decisions to omit factual actions about the business processes of Palantir Technologies?”


One Response to “Two Palantir Profiles: Some Peculiar Omissions”

  1. Palantir Round Up: The Beyond Search Commentary : Stephen E. Arnold @ Beyond Search on October 27th, 2020 5:09 am

    […] “Two Palantir Profiles: Some Peculiar Omissions.” This essay identifies several Palantir activities not included in the September 2020 New York Magazine profile of the company and the October 2020 New York Times Magazine article. Why were this events ignored or overlooked by the respective publishing companies? […]

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