Technology platforms are merging: will we see earthquakes, new mountain ranges or find familiar landscapes heading for the bottom of the ocean?
Is it a good thing or a bad thing when major players in the world of MR technology merge or get acquired? It really depends who’s asking the question, as the answer is invariably a bit of both. But it’s a question that is alive right now.
Last February, Anglo-French software provider Askia announced that IPSOS, had bought a controlling interest in them. Days later, Confirmit announced it was merging with dashboard provider Dapresy. Yet before there were any real announcements about product directions, news broke this year that Confirmit was now in merger talks with with FocusVision, a head-to-head competitor.
Mergers and acquisitions can be good if they mean that that development investment can be intensified by unlocking new capital or pooling resources. After all, it generally takes two continents to collide before a mountain range can be born! We need our technology to reach higher and further, and much of what is out there shows signs of stunted growth because of limited investment. This, in turn, creates a productivity issue for the research industry, because the technology it depends on has developed piecemeal. Fewer, more intensively developed products should boost productivity – but that relies on the focus of the acquisition being to deliver growth, not to achieve economies of scale and extract value. Only time can tell on that one.
But there are other more immediate downsides. The people who are already “no longer working for the company” can tell you about that. It also creates anxiety for customers. Where rival products come under the same ownership, it is clear than not all the products will survive. The developer will have to pick winners, and hard luck if it’s the tools you rely on that are destined for obsolescence.
Sometimes companies spend a year or two figuring out how to integrate the incompatible, and sometimes reaching the conclusion they are better off starting again. This is what happened twenty years ago when SPSS went on an acquisition spree. That resulted in a development trajectory that saw existing products stand still for several years before their replacement ‘Dimensions’ product line started to emerge, piece by piece. But the replacements were slow to appear and when they did, they did not completely fill the gap. That hiatus probably encouraged rivals such as Confirmit (then FIRM), Askia and subsequently Decipher (later acquired by FocusVision) to get going.
Confirmit seem to have done a better job of folding the products it acquired into its own platform when it bought Pulse Train over a decade ago. It is still there, at least, and the lineage from Pulse Train with its CATI and data processing capabilities can all be seen now in Confirmit. Perhaps that bodes well for their acquisition of Dapresy. Confirmit has long had its own dashboard tool. Named Reportal, it had a cute name but not much else to commend it. It was a beast that was hard to tame. MR clients appeared to be defecting to generalist business intelligence tools like Tableau and Power-BI, which are a pain to use for an entirely different set of reasons.
But the path is much less clear for Confirmit versus FocusVision’s Decipher, both sitting in the centre of their own constellation of different – and inevitably incompatible products. Research firms using these tools can ill afford another lengthy development hiatus while these continents grind together.
At the moment, the merger has been referred to the competition regulators in US on monopoly or ‘antitrust’ grounds. If it is eventually allowed, let’s hope the lessons of SPSS have been learned, and that they figure out a way for all their customers to scale the mountain range that will start to emerge in a year or two’s time.