You’ve got to feel sorry for long-time Dialog employees. They’ve had multiple changes in ownership. Some owners have been better than others. The latest, announced today, is ProQuest, which agreed to acquire the business from the Science division of Thomson Reuters. OK, I’ll admit to mixed feelings about all of this. I cut my online teeth on Dialog, back when it only had a few files. It was a Lockheed venture back then. It had this techy feel to it. I liked the way I could manipulate data, construct complex search strategies, and really get the information to do what I wanted it to do. It’s the command and control thing. I enjoyed understanding how it all worked. I liked the notion of technological transparency. Web search engines aren’t transparent, they don’t want you to know how they come up with results, and they aren’t targeting information professionals as their main user group.
Then Lockheed sold Dialog to Knight-Ridder. Goody, I thought, we’ll get some newspaper people in here who understand information and believe that information is meant to be published and shared. Lockheed, after all, was primarily a defence company and some of its philosophy didn’t correlate with Dialog’s. My belief is that Knight-Ridder could have done a lot more for Dialog than it did. Why it didn’t I will leave to someone else to explain.
Then Knight-Ridder sold Dialog to M.A.I.D, a London-based company that promptly renamed itself The Dialog Corporation. Again, I was encouraged that this company actually understood information, having created a well-respected (though pricey) market research database. Antagonism between top management and customers, some pricing missteps, and cultural differences maid the acquisition less than the success M.A.I.D anticipated. Financing was another issue that dogged the new company.
Next step in the acquisition trail was the sale of Dialog to Thomson. Now, I come from a financial services background. My initial use of Dialog was in that context. I’ve always thought of Dialog as a business resource. However, I realize that information professionals in other industries relied upon Dialog for scientific, technical, and medical information. Humanities and social sciences were also part of the original offerings of Dialog. Legal information was never a strong area for Dialog. I expected Dialog to join Thomson as part of its Finance division. Thomson put it under its Scientific division. It then split off the M.A.I.D-conceived products and put them into the Legal division (read West). When that happened, it became clear to me that Dialog was no longer a company; it was a product line of Thomson Scientific.
Not to put down Thomson Scientific, for I think much of what they do is admirable, but Dialog wasn’t the best of fits. It was too eclectic and not scientific enough. Sure, it’s got some science data. In fact, it’s got some of the same data that Scientific puts into other product lines, just packaged differently. The emphasis on business, humanities and social sciences began to fade. Dialog’s technical platform didn’t progress much. Dialog Classic looks pretty much as it did when I first learned the Dialog command language.
So I probably wasn’t the only one to notice that Dialog was looking a whole lot like the unwanted stepchild of Thomson. And Thomson was distracted buying Reuters, a huge, major acquisition, which makes all of the Dialog ownership changes look like small potatoes. ProQuest undoubtedly noticed this as well. Hence their agreement to acquire Dialog.
Here’s the good part: Dialog now has an owner solidly and completely and competently in the information business. ProQuest has the same market as Dialog’s–libraries. Maybe ProQuest, itself the result of the purchase of the original ProQuest by Cambridge Information Group, can restore Dialog to its former glory. But it certainly won’t make Dialog a company; it will remain a product line, in all probability.
Is there a bad part? I don’t know. There are real technical deficiencies. Dialog is nowhere near looking like a 2.0 platform. It desperately needs to be brought into the 21st century. Will ProQuest keep the Quantum program? I hope so, as it’s one of the best things Dialog does. Part of the agreement is that the Thomson Reuters content will continue to flow through Dialog. These are some major databases: Investext, World Patents Index, SciSearch and Social SciSearch, BIOSIS, and TrademarkScan. Obviously, the CSA databases will remain or be added back, depending on the status of the files. But what about other content on Dialog? Is the entire notion of "one stop shopping" for search obsolete in the professional search environment? Has web search taken over that moniker? Are we back to silos of information when we’re talking about premium content?
There is still the remote possibility that this acquisition won’t happen. Very remote. The deal will probably close in the next 30 days or so, after employees around the world have been contacted. Then we’ll see what this latest ownership change will mean for the online information pioneer called Dialog.