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Predicting an outcome for Dimensions under IBM

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.

A final goodbye to Quantime

quantime_newsletterI feel sad that IBM has swallowed up SPSS. It feels like the absolute total end of an era.

I used to work for SPSS, and before that for Quantime, which SPSS took over. Both companies had their different qualities: where Quantime was quirky and Bohemian with faded hippy edges, SPSS was organized, with clean-cut suits, but still pleasantly relaxed. SPSS did, in my view, do a good job of ironing out the less attractive wrinkles within Quantime, but with hindsight something intangible was lost, or possibly diluted.  Was it passion?

Quantime, the developer of Quantum and Quancept, was an amazingly successful organization both in terms of cornering the market and making a profit. Looking back, I think at least part of the reason for this was its quirky, slightly disorganized nature. It was the type of place were rules were for bending, where the parties were memorable and where customers who bought beer for the right developers got their favourite bugs fixed a bit faster. SPSS added a slicker system of management and brought new order to anything that was a little unpolished.   I do not have any personal knowledge of IBM, but I assume its culture is less relaxed than SPSS and pretty much at the opposite end of the spectrum from Quantime.

A certain amount of chaos obviously did Quantime no harm – the bottom line was good – although sometimes the quirkiness was hard to live with. That was especially true when we were trying to write its always well-received and much plagiarized newsletter (see an example above) into the wee small hours because of a spur-of-the-moment decision to get one out in a week. However, it is an amazing endorsement to the endeavours of everyone in the old company that, 30 years on, Quantum is still a market leading product in its class.

I really cannot imagine what such a monolith as IBM would want with such niche products as Quantum. Wouldn’t it be great if IBM could sell off SPSS’ market research software interests to a smaller organization that could reinvent a big chunk of Quantime’s passion, and perhaps a small dose of SPSS’ management acumen. Is there anyone out there who fits the bill? If so, please call IBM!

A disappearing trick: Dimensions and SPSS

It’s ten years since SPSS announced its vision for the future of research software in 1999: its ‘Vision 2000’. Its dedicated MR division, SPSS MR was tasked with turning this vision into reality and the product was named Dimensions. A stream of products eventually started to appear for customers using the firm’s legacy products like Quancept, Surveycraft and In2quest.

In acquiring this family of products, SPSS had become the undisputed global number one supplier of MR software. There is no doubt that Dimensions was among the most technically advanced for MR when it emerged and the platform has allowed customers to build ingenious software solutions of their own in a way they only dreamed before. But the project has been dogged with problems too, with customers criticising the software for being over-complex – increasing, not decreasing the skill level of those required to run and manage the software – and for being slow. Some IT managers have needed to cluster unprecedented numbers of servers in order to deliver performance, while several rival packages still seem to operate satisfactorily as single-box solutions.

No happy anniversary celebrations have been announced by SPSS. Instead the Dimensions name is being dropped. SPSS Inc. wants to see its extensive product family of some 50 programs united under a new name: PASW. It stands for Predictive Analytics Software. The iconoclastic new product names seem to require exceptional powers of recall. mr Internview becomes ‘PASW Data Collection Interviewer Web’. mr Studio becomes ‘PASW Data Collection Base’. Even the venerable SPSS becomes ‘PASW Statistics Base’. SPSS will live on only as as company name.

The firm denies that this name change has any connection with the approach from SPSS founder Norman Nie last year, who has offered to sell the SPSS name to the firm for $20 million. It is also adamant that its commitment to the market research community is undiminished. However, ten years on, there is no longer a specialist MR division and the firm’s focus is clearly on predictive analytics and modelling based on business intelligence.

Let’s hope that the new SPSS remembers we do much more than that in market research. With all this focus on predictive analytics from corporate data, it’s worth remembering, there’s only so much you can learn by looking in the rear-view mirror, no matter how cleverly.

A version of this article was also published in research magazine, issue 517, June 2009, under the title “What’s in a name”