Reports of the imminent demise of Biblio-Techniques Library and Information System, Inc. (BLIS) have circulated within the library community over the course of the past several months. (LSN editors reported in the June issue that BLIS corporate officials, at that time, denied rumors of impending bankruptcy.) The ALA meeting in New York brought fresh stories about the troubles faced by BLIS and its customers. The editors again approached BLIS and spoke with Richard Woods, Director of Marketing. Mr. Woods informed LSN that contrary to the rumors, BLIS technically had not filed for bankruptcy, but that it "has critical problems before it which we hope can be resolved in the future." Mr. Woods was unwilling to discuss or comment upon the situation any further, though he promised to keep LSN editors informed as developments warrant.
However, other sources have told LSN that customers were notified by BLIS in June that "the company is in the process of effecting an orderly termination of business, including the transfer of source code with documentation to customer sites." LSN has been told that the company has let go all staff except principals. Given the limited staff available for technical and support assistance, BLIS apparently has ceased to support existing systems, though jobs in progress at various sites are being completed where possible.
The editors believe that the circumstances faced by BLIS and its six library customers warrant some attention in the literature. It is hoped that libraries will be able to benefit from the experiences of these in order to minimize, if not avoid, similar difficulties resulting from the loss of an online vendor.
The BLIS software package is based on software developed by the Western Library Network (WLN) for its bibliographic utility system, and which was also sold to the national libraries of Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, as well as to two universities in the U.S. A license agreement between WLN and BLIS to enhance and market the WLN software, and to bundle it with hardware as a turnkey system, was signed in 1981. More specifically, what BLIS offered was an integrated online system using the WLN computer software, the ADABAS Data Base Management system, the COMPLETE Teleprocessing Monitor, and IBM compatible hardware. All software is compatible with standard IBM operating systems.
The BLIS system provides for automated technical processing and acquisitions controls, circulation control, an online catalog, a catalog management system for original cataloging and management of machine-readable archive tapes, and a networking system that supports resource sharing. The software has been available for purchase as a package or as a turnkey system configured on IBM or IBM-compatible 370, 43xX and 30XX series hardware. By late 1983, BLIS had made sales to two universities, and a third was about to embark on a six-month demonstration installation. Currently, there are six customers, including: Brown University, Columbia University, Indiana University, Metropolitan Toronto Public Reference Library, the University of Cincinnati, and the University of California, San Diego. Other libraries, most notably Johns Hopkins University and Cornell University, had signed agreements with BLIS but for one reason or another over the course of the last two years, severed their relationships before the most recent problems arose.
The number of BLIS customers is relatively small and homogenous and also consists of institutions with considerable data processing expertise within the library and/or campus computer center. These circumstances may make undertaking various remedial actions easier than if, for example, BLIS customers included various types and sizes of institutions. Despite this relative homogeneity, when considering what actions the six customers can take, one must appreciate that each faces different problems and challenges. For starters, while some of these libraries' systems are operational, often have not yet loaded the data base. Then, the depth of involvement in terms of in-house system staff, and their abilities to perform maintenance and developmental work varies among the six institutions. Finally, the availability of an appropriate existing alternative in-place system varies. Each customer, therefore, has been forced to assess its requirements in order to decide whether to maintain the existing system or investigate other alternatives.
Among the BLIS customers, three courses of action are currently being considered: (a) Direct licensing of the WLN software, upon which the BLIS software is based; (b) the creation of a consortium of some or all of the BLIS customers to undertake collective maintenance and enhancement efforts; and (c) mounting other software on the existing hardware. Questions remain about the viability of each option, and discussions are continuing among the customers, WLN, and BLIS. Also, very much concerned are campus data processing, library, legal and administrative personnel. LSN has learned that in some instances library officials have already forwarded recommendations to campus officials for review and approval, though apparently no decisions have been made public as yet. Conclusions and press announcements can be expected by mid-fall of this year.
With the current news about BLIS, libraries are reminded of the inherent risks connected with the automated library systems marketplace. Difficulties similar to those encountered by the six BLIS customers have been faced by others in the past, most notably by customers of 3M, Cincinnati Electronics, Decicom, Data Phase ALIS II and III, and Systems Control. Though similar, however, each of these situations was also unique. The BLIS customers are generally better off since: 1) their software is built around a kernel which is still being supported by the original licensor, WLN; 2) IBM or IBM-PC hardware is used which has at least two other software packages (DOBIS and NOTIS) available for it; and 3) each site has considerable in-house systems expertise. In contrast, Cincinnati Electronics and Decicom customers had no alternative source of software support (they had Sperry Varian and General Automation hardware respectively, for which there was no other software; and the customers generally lacked systems expertise). Data Phase ALIS II customers are still getting limited software support from Data Phase and they also are in a position to switch to either OCLC LS/2000 or Georgetown Medical's LIS software which can be mounted on their Data General hardware. And while ALIS II customers may, in general, lack systems expertise, they number nearly 50 institutions and thus represent an attractive market for other vendors. Data Phase ALIS III users had the option of contracting with UTLAS, the purchaser of the ALIS III software product, or mounting Eyring's CARL software on their Tandem hardware and, while many of them lack systems expertise, almost all of them have experienced systems managers. Systems Control customers also continue to obtain limited software support from their vendor and they have Digital hardware for which other software is available. However, these systems are now under-configured and would require major hardware upgrades. The 3M customers had no alternatives for either software or hardware, but no money was lost since they had contracts which called for the entire payment to be made on acceptance, which never occurred because the company withdrew from the market before completing the software installation.
It could be said that the choice of a vendor that does not have an installed base of at least 20 sites and current sales of at least 10 systems a year is a high risk option. Without such a base, company revenues will not be great enough to fund both vigorous software development and marketing. In this regard, Cincinnati Electronics, Decicom, BLIS, and 3M were all high risks when libraries made their purchases. The choice of a vendor with a large installed base and strong sales, however, is also not without risk. Data Phase met these criteria and generally was perceived to be a low risk option until it ran into difficulty with its attempts to develop ALIS III in addition to ALIS II and experienced serious cash flow problems. A vendor severely limits the options of its customers should it cease to support the product if it does not provide access to source code data by placing it in escrow. While BLIS and Data Phase customers generally have escrow clauses in their contracts, customers of Decicom and Systems Control did not.
When a vendor is the only one to use a particular hardware, libraries do not have the option of mounting other software on the existing hardware. Cincinnati Electronics and Decicom customers, for example, had to purchase both new hardware and software.
Most of the libraries did not have performance bonds in their contracts, in some cases because the vendor was not bondable, but in a majority of cases because they did not seek them. Cincinnati Electronics, Systems Control and 3M are all companies for which library automation was a minor part of the total corporate activity. The danger was loss of interest, rather than total failure of the company. At least one Systems Control customer did have a bond and recovered several hundred thousand dollars. The 3M customers had payment terms tied to completion and acceptance.
While libraries cannot expect to eliminate all risk, there are things they can do to reduce the risks. They can: ask vendors to demonstrate their viability by submitting financial statements, ascertain what support will be available in case the vendor ceases to maintain and develop the product, determine what other software will run on the hardware being purchased, and specify a performance bond. If the library cannot get all of these protections, it should decide whether the higher level of risk is justified by the superiority of the software. If it is, the library administration should be sure to apprise staff and higher level administration in the parent institution of the potential risks.