June 18, 2001 — In a surprise announcement, OCLC said on June 8 that it plans to discontinue development of its SiteSearch suite of products. The next release, scheduled for delivery this fall, will be the last, although OCLC will continue to provide technical support to licensed SiteSearch users through at least the end of 2002. Interestingly enough, OCLC had been actively marketing SiteSearch up until the time of the announcement. Installations of SiteSearch currently number about 100, including several statewide consortial implementations.
Though the basic announcement has been made, OCLC is still in the process of working through many of the details that relate to this product and its support. Doug Loynes, OCLC SiteSearch product manager, states that “OCLC is interested in having an active dialogue with current SiteSearch users on how best to meet their needs. We have a primary interest in addressing the concerns of current customers.” A meeting of the OCLC SiteSearch User's Group was already planned for the ALA Annual Conference in San Francisco. The customers' interests expressed at that meeting and in ongoing conversations will help to inform OCLC about the support options it will offer past 2002.
The primary reason stated for the discontinuation of SiteSearch has to do with the allocation of development resources. OCLC has recently articulated a very ambitious strategic plan, Extending the Cooperative: A Three-Year Strategy (http://www.oclc.org/strategy). Asked about the relationship between this initiative and the discontinuation of SiteSearch, OCLC vice president Frank Hermes said that OCLC is considering a project that would seek to integrate and extend its suite of portal services—SiteSearch, WebExpress, and FirstSearch—to provide libraries with a single “portal service” platform. OCLC will evaluate the market for this new service and announce its intentions in this area at approximately the same time that SiteSearch version 4.2.0 is released this fall.
According to the official announcement issued by Jay Jordan, president of OCLC, “[W]hile we launched SiteSearch with high hopes, it has never achieved our expectations in revenues and number of users.” Hermes further stated that new sales for SiteSearch had declined in the last 2 to 3 years. In order to work toward the objectives described in this strategy, OCLC finds that it would not be able to develop both SiteSearch and its new products and services. Like any organization, OCLC must make decisions about where to put development resources. SiteSearch was apparently judged to be expendable in relation to other products considering the very ambitious agenda that OCLC has set for itself in the next 3 years.
Though OCLC is discontinuing the development of SiteSearch, it will complete its planned release of version 4.2.0, which will provide a number of new features, including a completely new search engine. SiteSearch users all know that OCLC often uses names of fruits to describe its technical components. The now-dated “Newton” search engine will be supplemented by a new Java-based search engine called “Pears.” OCLC indicates that Pears will be released as open source. (The plan to offer Pears in this format was made even before the decision to discontinue SiteSearch.)
Loynes noted that OCLC is investigating and considering a number of options for the ongoing support of SiteSearch. One of the options might be a “community sourcing” model, in which existing licensees gain access to the source code of the product and provide mutual support. OCLC recognizes that there is a very strong SiteSearch community and that many users have deep technical skills and a solid understanding of SiteSearch's underpinnings. A purely open-source model of support in which SiteSearch source code is provided to the whole world for free seems unlikely, but is still within the realm of possible options. Loynes emphasized that OCLC will “provide as much ongoing support for SiteSearch as possible given the circumstances.” Again, final decisions have not been made pending additional conversations with SiteSearch customers.
For those not familiar with the product, SiteSearch is a suite of tools designed to help libraries deliver integrated access to diverse information resources through a Web-based environment. The initial version of SiteSearch was developed in 1992. The product has grown steadily since, with about one major version released every 2 years.
OCLC has recently introduced a related product called WebExpress. Though similar in features to SiteSearch, WebExpress is much more of a turnkey product that libraries can manage without local programming support. OCLC officials say that no plans are in place to discontinue the marketing, sales, or support of WebExpress.
The discontinuation of SiteSearch will be a public relations issue for OCLC. But, any negative impact that the withdrawal of SiteSearch will have on OCLC's public image will be mitigated by an amiable support arrangement with the current users of this product. Also to the extent that OCLC's users in general resonate with the organization's new strategic plan, they will be sympathetic with the trade-offs associated with focusing on a new set of products and services.
It does seem that OCLC is working hard to back away from SiteSearch more gracefully than it did a decade ago with its Local Systems Division. While it's firm in its decision that it can't develop SiteSearch as a product in the long term, the company emphasizes its determination to present palatable options for the libraries that have made investments in this product. Only time will tell whether these efforts have been successful.
For the present, there is no reason for libraries that use SiteSearch to panic. Given the expectation that OCLC will continue support for at least another year and a half, no libraries are forced to discontinue current services, and have some time to develop long-term strategies.
[For more details on SiteSearch, the reasons for its declining appeal, and a discussion of various library implementations, see Marshall Breeding's Systems Librarian column in the upcoming July/August issue of Information Today.]
Marshall Breeding is the technology analyst at Vanderbilt University's Heard Library and a columnist for Information Today. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.