Palantir Applies Lipstick, Much Lipstick

February 16, 2012

I had three people send me a link to the Washingtonian article “Killer App.” On the surface, the write up is about search and content processing, predictive analytics, and the value of these next generation solutions. Underneath the surface, I see more of a public relations piece. but that’s just my opinion.

Let me point out that the article was more of a political write up than a technology article. Palantir, in my opinion, has been pounding the pavement, taking journalists to Starbuck’s, and working overtime. The effort is understandable. In 2010 and 2011, Palantir was involved in a dispute with i2 Group, now a unit of IBM, about intellectual property. The case was resolved and the terms of the settlement were not revealed. I know zero about the legal hassles but I did pick up some information that suggested the i2 Group was not pleased with Palantir’s ability to parse Analyst Notebook file types.

I steered clear of the hassle because in the past I have done work for i2 Ltd., the predecessor to the i2 Group. I know that the file structure was a closely held and highly prized chunk of information. At any rate, the dust is now settling, and any company with some common sense would be telling its story to anyone who will listen. Palantir has a large number of smart people and significant funding. Therefore, getting publicity to support marketing is a standard business practice.

Now what’s with the Washingtonian article? First, the Washington is a consumer publication aimed at the affluent, socially aware folks who live in the District, Maryland, and Virginia. The story kicks off with a description of Palantir’s system which can parse disparate information and make sense of items which would be otherwise lost in the flood of data rushing through most organizations today. The article said:

To conduct what became known as Operation Fallen Hero, investigators turned to a little-known Silicon Valley software company called Palantir Technologies. Palantir’s expertise is in finding connections among people, places, and events in large repositories of electronic data. Federal agents had amassed a trove of reporting on the drug cartels, their members, their funding mechanisms and smuggling routes.

Then the leap:

Officials were so impressed with Palantir’s software that seven months later they bought licenses for 1,150 investigators and analysts across the country. The total price, including training, was $7.5 million a year. The government chose not to seek a bid from some of Palantir’s competitors because, officials said, analysts had already tried three products and each “failed to provide the necessary comprehensive solution on missions where our agents risk life and limb.” As far as Washington was concerned, only Palantir would do. Such an endorsement would be remarkable if it were unique. But over the past three years, Palantir, whose Washington office in Tysons Corner is just six miles from the CIA’s headquarters, has become a darling of the US law-enforcement and national-security establishment. Other agencies now use Palantir for some variation on the challenge that bedeviled analysts in Operation Fallen Hero—how to organize and catalog intimidating amounts of data and then find meaningful insights that humans alone usually can’t.

Sounds good. The only issue is that there are a number of companies delivering this type of solution. The competitors range from vendors of SharePoint add ins to In-Q-Tel funded Digital Reasoning to JackBe, a mash up and fusion outfit in Silver Spring, Maryland. Even Google is in the game via its backing of Recorded Future, a company which asserts that it can predict what will happen. There are quite sophisticated services provided by low profile SAIC and SRA International. I would toss in my former employers Halliburton and Booz, Allen & Hamilton, but these firms are not limited to one particular government solution. Bottom line: There are quite a few heavy hitters in this market space. Many of them outpace Palantir’s technology and Palantir’s business methods, in my opinion

In short, Palantir is a relative newcomer in a field of superstar technology companies. In my opinion, the companies providing predictive solutions and data fusion systems are like the NFL Pro Bowl selections. Palantir is a player, and, in my opinion, a firm which operates at a competitive level. However, Palantir is not the quarterback of the winning team.

From my viewpoint in Harrod’s Creek, the Washingtonian writes about Palantir without providing substantive context. In-Q-Tel funds many organizations and has taken heat because many of these firms’ solutions are stand alone systems. Integrations without legal blow back is important. Firms which end up in messy litigation increase security risks; they do not reduce security risks. Short cuts are not unknown in Washington political circles. It is important to work with companies which demonstrate high value behaviors, avoid political and legal mud fights, and deliver value over time.

The Washingtonian article tells an interesting story, but it is a bit like a short story. Reality has been shaped I believe. Palantir is presented out of context, and I think that the article is interesting for three reasons:

  1. What it asserts about a company which is one of a number of firms providing next generation intelligence solutions
  2. The magazine itself which presented a story which reminded me of a television late night advertorial
  3. The political agenda which reveals something about Washington journalism.

In short, an quite good example of 21st century “real” journalism. That lipstick looks good. Does it contain lead?

Stephen E Arnold, February 16, 2012

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