Now that the dispute with SPSS founder Norman Nye has been settled, it looks very likely that the IBM takeover of SPSS will go ahead. Though SPSS spokesperson Heena Jethwa put up a spirited defence in Research magazine (Commitment to MR ‘as strong as ever’, says SPSS) last month, the question remains for the hundreds of users of SPSS MR-specific software worldwide, including Dimensions and the legacy Quancept and Quantum software: just what is IBM going to do with these product lines?
I happen not to share Ms Jethwa’s upbeat assessment that MR customers are likely to be even better off with IBM. The evidence of the recent past, even under the SPSS régime, does not bear this out. SPSS has not had the zeal for MR that was evident when it had its own SPSS MR division and the core Dimensions range of products have not, in my view, kept up with the recent pace of development or innovation from rivals often much smaller than SPSS – but wholly focused on MR and survey-based activities. Make no mistake, there is some excellent technology for MR in the Dimensions range, but the firm’s once mighty grip on the specific and changing needs of research has been allowed to slip.
Whether this is the cause or a symptom is hard to say, but over the past four or five years, SPSS has allowed almost all of its specialists in MR to leach away – most have been snapped up by other MR software firms or research companies. There is no longer a strong force of internal champions for MR within the firm to drive the innovation that is needed.
So what might happen under IBM? IBM has re-invented itself as a software and information management provider, and it went for SPSS for its predictive analytics software to strengthen its range in the business information area of its activities. However, predictive analytics will still only appeal to a minority of actual users, and in relation to that, all the complicated MR stuff it will be acquiring too sits inside a niche within a niche. Even if there were still a strong team of internal champions within SPSS, they would have their work cut out to convince IBM to invest in specialised products with such limited mass market appeal.
Perhaps the best outcome would be for IBM to spin off its MR products. The worrying thing is that, for a firm the size of IBM, simply collecting the rent from existing Dimensions tenants and letting the house fall down over time would have virtually zero impact on its business overall: the MR software market is such a tiny vertical market in global terms. If shareholders vote to accept IBM’s offer on Friday, it would be a good time for the SPSS MR Users’ Group to convene an emergency meeting.