I'm delighted to have the opportunity to write more regularly for Information Today. Beginning with this issue I will share this space with Terry Ballard, who will continue to write every other month. Until now, most of my writing for this publication has been in the form of articles about library automation technology demonstrated at library conferences such as ALA's (American Library Association), Computers in Libraries, and the National Online Meeting/IOLS. In this column I will focus on trends and developments in the library automation industry as well as events and issues related to the day-to-day implementation of technology in libraries.
For a number of years, following the library automation industry has been one of my main professional interests. From 1992 through 1998 I was editor in chief of Library Software Review. I have also been active in writing about library automation, as well as in giving workshops and presentations at conferences.
But the main focus of my professional life involves technology implementation. At Vanderbilt University I lead the Library Technology Team, which is responsible for the wide range of automation systems that support the campus libraries. Some of the systems that we deal with include a SIRSI Unicorn library automation system, a SilverPlatter ERL server, OCLC SiteSearch, several CD-ROM network servers, a large Novell NetWare network, several Windows NT servers, electronic resources created with Inmagic DB/TextWorks and WebPublisher, Web servers of several varieties, and more than 300 desktop systems running Windows NT Workstation. In future columns, I expect to relate some of the experiences that we have had with these systems.
The Big News
Ameritech Library Services (ALS) has been sold. It has undergone a major transition from being a subsidiary of Ameritech—a large telecommunications corporation—to that of a privately owned company. On November 5, Ameritech announced the sale of its ALS division to a pair of investment companies, the 21st Century Group, LLC, and Green Leaf Ridge Co., LLC.
Recently, Ameritech itself had quite a transformation in that it was acquired by SBC Communications, Inc. The final FCC approval of this merger took place at about the same time as the ALS sale. As Ameritech becomes part of an even larger telecommunications conglomerate, it had been widely believed that there would not be continued interest in maintaining a library automation division. While ALS was the largest entity in the library automation industry, it was minuscule in the context of the SBC/Ameritech corporate structure.
Background and History
Ameritech's business interest in libraries spans only the last decade, though the companies it has acquired represent a much earlier era of library automation. Ameritech's first dabble into library software was through an automation system called Discovery Place. Ameritech's real launch into the library automation arena came in May 1990 when it acquired the Local Systems division of OCLC.
With this sale, Ameritech took responsibility for some of the major library automation products of the time, including LS/2000, LS/2, SC350, and ACQ350. These systems represented vestiges of an even earlier set of library automation systems. LS/2 was the ALIS II system developed by DataPhase. LS/2000 was originally developed jointly by OCLC and Online Computer Systems, Inc., based on the ILS (Integrated Library System) developed at the Lister Hill Center National Library of Medicine. OCLC had also acquired Avitar in 1983, another company involved in enhancing and marketing the ILS. OCLC also had a serials-control system called SC350, which it acquired when it bought a company called MetaMicro. With the acquisition of OCLC's Local Systems division, Ameritech bought a large portion of the library automation software developed up until that time.
Ameritech's interest in library companies increased. On October 1, 1991, Ameritech purchased NOTIS Systems, Inc. from Northwestern University. Between 1991 and May 1994, NOTIS Systems operated fairly independently under the direction of Jane Burke. NOTIS continued the development, support, and marketing of its mainframe-based NOTIS system, and began the development of a new client/server automation system called Horizon (which is unrelated to the system that currently bears that name).
The popularity of NOTIS, once the premier library automation system for large academic libraries, has since waned. As universities lost interest in supporting mainframe computers, the majority of libraries using NOTIS have moved to more modern client/server systems. As a result, they often experienced the pain of trading a mature system based on an obsolete architecture for a new product that was still evolving and striving to gain full functionality. IBM breathed new life into the mainframe as it moved from bipolar technology to CMOS-based processors, producing computers that follow the general architecture of the mainframe at a fraction of the cost. Taking advantage of this lower-cost hardware, ALS extended the life of NOTIS—an action that kept several important customers and even gained a few new ones.
Not even a year later, Ameritech took its biggest step ever into the library automation arena when it acquired Dynix Systems, Inc. in January 1992. Ameritech then gained control of the classic Dynix system, as well as Dynix Marquis, the precursor of the current Horizon product. At the time of this acquisition there were about 700 libraries using Dynix, and Marquis was just getting off the ground. The number of libraries using Dynix has increased to several thousand today, and it is the most widely used automation system in the world.
For a while, Ameritech allowed its two main library automation subsidiaries to operate independently. But this arrangement of competitive coexistence came to an end in May 1994 when NOTIS Systems, Inc. and Dynix Systems were consolidated. From this time forward Ameritech Library Services functioned as a single entity, operated first under the guidance of Paul Sybrowsky, who was succeeded in February 1995 by Thomas Quarton. Lana Porter later succeeded Quarton, and she will continue as president of the new privately held company.
Through this series of mergers and acquisitions, Ameritech Library Services became a major force in library automation. The combined Dynix, Horizon, and NOTIS customer base represents more libraries than any other library automation vendor. Currently, about 5,200 libraries rely on ALS products. In addition to its primary automation products, Ameritech offers a variety of connectivity products, resource-sharing applications, and interfaces as well as a major retrospective conversion operation.
A New Beginning
The sale of ALS concludes a period of uncertainty and speculation that affected both its current customers and potential clients. Since the announcement of the SBC/Ameritech merger—and even before it—there were many reasons to believe that some type of business change was in store for Ameritech Library Services. One of the possibilities was that it would be acquired by one of its competitors. Such an outcome could have been extremely disruptive to the libraries that use its products. When a company is acquired by a competitor in the same industry, there is almost always a consolidation effort that results in fewer product choices on the market.
Fortunately for its customers, Ameritech Library Services has emerged intact. For the last year or more, the company had been investigating its options. Ameritech worked with a financial advising group called Berenson Minella & Co. to identify prospective investors that would be interested in ALS. The two groups that ultimately cooperated to purchase the company were 21st Century Group, LLC and Green Leaf Ridge Co., LLC. While these two investment corporations were completely unknown to the library automation community, they expressed strong interest in providing the resources for ALS to continue to develop and expand. In my conversation with Kate Noerr, ALS's vice president for marketing and sales, she emphasized that the new owners should be considered as long-term investors and not as sources for venture capital, which are typically associated with short-term opportunities.
What will the new company look like? Released from control of SBC/Ameritech, ALS is now privately held. No major changes are expected in the management of the company. Lana Porter will continue as the president and CEO of the company and Noerr as vice president, and the rest of the executive management team will remain. The company will continue to be based in Provo, Utah, and maintain its offices in Evanston, Illinois, as well as its many offices worldwide. Oversight of the company will be provided by a board that will include Lana Porter, two members each from the two investment firms, and one or more external individuals.
ALS also has a new name. As of mid-December the company is now known as “epixtech.” Expect to see this new name and logo prominently displayed, beginning with the ALA 2000 Midwinter Meeting this month in San Antonio, Texas.
What should we expect in the development of epixtech's library automation products? With the infusion of financial resources related to its sale, we can expect the company to take on a more aggressive development agenda. One of the major challenges that epixtech faces involves the aging architecture of Dynix, its mainstay automation product. Dynix, though a mature system with a rich set of features, is based on an operating environment called Pick, which is generally regarded as a computing platform approaching the end of its life. Epixtech has been working on “Sunrise,” a next-generation system that will combine many of the characteristics of its Horizon client/server product with the feature set of Dynix. I expect that epixtech will accelerate the development of this system, which will be an attractive upgrade for its existing Dynix customers. With over 5,000 Dynix users worldwide, the stakes for Sunrise's success are very high.
It is likely that the financial resources needed for development and expansion are greater with the new business arrangement than under Ameritech's ownership. Although one would expect Ameritech to have had very deep pockets, it appears that the quantity of resources it was willing to devote to its library automation division was limited. The new owners are said to be interested in providing sufficient capital to sustain very aggressive development.
All in all, the acquisition of ALS seems to me to be the best possible outcome for the libraries that are customers of ALS. While many of us who watch the library automation industry have been expecting a gradual decline in this company, it appears that these developments change those prospects entirely. We can now expect epixtech to continue as a major player for the foreseeable future.
In Other News …
Although the big news centers on the former Ameritech Library Services, there are other developments to keep an eye on. In October, SIRSI Corp. announced that it had developed a business relationship with CEA Capital Partners. SIRSI has long been a privately held company that has been adamantly self-sufficient, making any new acquisition of venture capital particularly striking. It is likely that we'll be hearing of some new major development from this company in the relatively near future.
In the last few months, Geac has also made a major acquisition by purchasing JBA, one of the world's largest developers of Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) applications. Though this acquisition involves parts of the company not related to its library automation division, there may be some implications. As Geac becomes a larger entity, it will be interesting to investigate whether there might be any changes in the works for the Geac Library Systems division. Stay tuned to this column in future issues for updates on these and other developments.
Marshall Breeding is the technology analyst for the Jean and Alexander Heard Library at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. He is a freelance writer and consultant in the areas of library automation and networking technologies.