It seemed like the right choice at the time. Pennsylvania's Bureau of Land Recycling and Waste Management, a division of the Department of Environmental Protection, purchased an imaging system called Ovation from Vantage Technologies Inc., a document management company. The bureau needed the system's special forms processing capabilities to manage its documents related to hazardous, municipal and industrial waste.

While the imaging system cost a hefty $1.2 million, the investment appeared worth it. Data from the forms would help environmental analysts regulate the state's toxic waste and recycling efforts.

But shortly after the bureau had their system up and running, Vantage was purchased by Wang, which wanted to bolster its document management software capabilities for Microsoft's Windows NT platform. At the time, Bureau Chief Jeff Beatty expressed frustration as Vantage technical support seemed to evaporate leading up to the sale. "We can't get the support we need," he said in the fall of 1996.

Within months of purchasing Vantage, Wang told the bureau it would support Ovation with minor upgrades, but it had no intention of continuing development. Rather, Wang suggested the bureau consider switching to a new product it was developing under its relationship with Microsoft. Then came the next bombshell. Wang sold its imaging software to Eastman Kodak for $260 million.

Paul Pocavich, chief of information services for the bureau, is worried about the latest buyout and how it will impact support for the already beleaguered Vantage product. "I'm concerned the sale will limit our options," he said. "We would like to get something back from our investment for a three- to five-year period before we have to throw it all out and start over again."

RAPID GROWTH

Imaging is a $3 billion business, and growing. Like other segments of the information technology industry, it has undergone tremendous change over the past 10 years, thanks to major advancements in technology. But the downside to growth and innovation has been a high degree of volatility in the marketplace.

Over the past two years, a tremendous number of acquisitions and mergers have taken place. FileNet and Wang, the market leaders in imaging, have led the way with a series of acquisitions meant to expand market share. Other vendors have followed suit in order to compete. As a result, a number of smaller vendors, some only in operation for a few years, have either merged with larger vendors or have disappeared entirely, leaving only their products.

For government agencies that have invested in small but leading-edge imaging systems, the demise of a vendor is a major concern. Few agencies can afford to replace their orphaned software, especially if they purchased the original software in the past couple of years. "Government agencies tend to stick with one system for quite a while, probably to their detriment," said Michael Muth, a senior consultant with Delphi Consulting Group.

Government agencies just can't afford to overhaul their systems, according to Pocavich. "We've only been running imaging for a couple of years, and now we're talking about migrating to another software. That's hard to justify to upper management," he said.

Sometimes, software support disappears from the least likely places. The city of Palo Alto, Calif., had what it thought was a pretty good imaging system using software called Plexus on a system built by a reliable vendor, Hewlett-Packard. But in the early 1990s, HP decided to get out of the imaging software business, leaving Palo Alto with a system that would not be upgraded.

The latest shift in the imaging market took place January 29, 1997, when Kodak announced its plans to purchase Wang's imaging software. Kodak renamed the software business unit Eastman Software Inc., which now includes Wang's imaging, document management and storage management software, as well as 700 Wang employees.

According to Michael Iadarola, a spokesman for Kodak's Business