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."
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 Imaging Systems unit, Kodak doesn't plan any wholesale changes to Wang's product portfolio, which includes Ovation and Wang's flagship OPEN software products. He said the software purchase makes Kodak the only vendor to offer a full line of hardware, software and support services for managing documents and digital images, like photographs and video, in both large and small applications.
In a report on Kodak's acquisition, industry analysts at Gartner Group Inc. forecast certain challenges ahead -- namely, whether Kodak can build market confidence, maintain product parity with key imaging leaders such as FileNet and IBM, and integrate Wang products with its own product lines and distribution channels.
But Muth believes Wang customers, especially in government, shouldn't worry too much. "Kodak understands industry sales and they are already active with government, so they know the market," he said. Peter Hamlin, chief of the Air Quality Bureau in Iowa's Department of Natural Resources and a Wang software customer, doesn't believe the sale will have a major impact. But, Hamlin pointed out, his bureau's imaging system was built and is maintained by Radian International, a systems integrator specializing in environmental services.
For Pennsylvania's Bureau of Land Recycling and Waste Management, the planned demise of Ovation couldn't have come at a worse time, according to Pocavich. Without improvements to the software, the bureau has been unable to use new forms with the system, reducing its effectiveness. Pocavich can't make the changes internally because he doesn't have the source code.
The whole experience has left the bureau's trust of technology somewhat shaken. "It could be a while before we continue with imaging," said a frustrated Pocavich. "The irony is that we are imaging advocates and believe the technology has a lot of potential. We would just like somebody to do something that would turn imaging into a product that people could trust, so that when a customer makes an investment in a product, they know that the product and the support will be around for a while."
To protect an imaging system against disruptive change, imaging experts in the private and public sectors advise customers to work with a systems integrator who can assume the challenge of keeping software components in sync.
Governments can also ask the software vendor who develops the imaging application to provide a demonstrable migration path away from its software. The customer should draw up a contract requiring the vendor show exactly how to locate an image or data and transfer it out of the system for storage.
Another approach is to maintain staff skills so systems knowledge remains in the department, independent of the vendor.
Finally, government agencies can save themselves a lot of trouble by staying clear of "bleeding-edge" technology and sticking with the tried-and-true when it comes to imaging applications.