A wakeup lawsuit

tracks by *Micky
Zotero facing a lawsuit:
[Via Bench Marks]

I’ve written about Zotero before, it’s an intriguing tool, essentially a Firefox plug-in for managing your reference list and other pieces of information. It’s a bit of a hybrid between online management tools like Connotea and things like Papers which you store on your own computer.

The bad news is that Thomson Reuters, the manufacturers of EndNote, are suing George Mason University and the Commonwealth of Virginia because a new version of Zotero lets you take your EndNote reference lists and convert them for use in Zotero. Yes, this is the same Thomson of Thomson ISI, secret gatekeepers of journal impact factors. They really seem to be going out of their way to lose what little goodwill they have left with the scientific community. It will be interesting to see if this reverse engineering for interoperability holds up in court as something that should be prevented.

This is sadly typical. I loved EndNote back in the 90s because it was a great Mac product. Much better for my needs than its competition, Reference Manager, which was much more of a Windows product. Niles Software really listened to what people wanted and added some very useful features, such as linkage of the library to a Word document. Then you could put the citation directly into Word.

I convinced others at my company to buy it. I had searches for a wide variety of topics. The purchase of Niles Software by ISI (now part of Thomson) started a period of fitful Mac updates and costly upgrades. I have since moved to other applications (most recently Sente) that did what I wanted for a more reasonable price.

This lawsuit seems like a losing gambit to me since any user can convert their library to Endnote XML that any other application can read. All it will do is drive users away from their software as the customers find new uses for the data.

Because the database really belongs to the user not to Thomson. But they try to obscure that by using a proprietary format. This hurts the enduser. Say I have an 10 year old EndNote library I forgot to convert. With say 8000 entries. And an old version of EndNote that no longer works in OS X. How am I supposed to move it to what I currently use without having to purchase EndNote simply for this one use? My favorite example of this horrendous process is the Mac cookbook program Mangia!

In the early 90s, this was the best program of its type, bar none. It permitted one to have a huge recipe library, that could be easily displayed, searched and also permitted an easy grocery list to be printed. Many of us love it but it does not work in OS X.

Mangia is no longer produced by anyone. The database created was proprietary and undocumented. The program had no export feature. Now it no longer even runs on any computer. So every user now has a database that they created that is unusable. There are workarounds to try and get to the data but they are not satisfactory. They also require the user to be able to run Mangia, which is really impossible for virtually everyone using a Mac today (I think my mother kept an old Mac around just so she could still use this one program. She has a huge library of recipes).

So all I have on my computer is a dead database of Mangia recipes that can never be used again. All that work over years to create a database and it is useless. This is why people need to be careful when they chose a database application.

Companies that respond to enduser innovation by suing, rather than innovating, are not ones that I see being very successful in the long run. There are other programs that can do the same thing. They are often created by companies that are more responsive and user friendly than larger companies. Suing users just drives people to more open formats.

More from Bench Marks:

More importantly, it’s yet again, a lesson in tying yourself to one locked-down proprietary format for your data and your work tools. If you’ve put a huge amount of time and effort into maintaining your EndNote list and a better tool comes along and becomes the standard, all that work may go to waste and you’ll have to start over again. A similar lesson was learned last week from anyone who purchased music downloads from WalMart. Richard Stallman recently gave a warning along the same lines about the much-hyped concept of “cloud computing”.
As you experiment with new online tools for your research, heed these lessons well. Demand tools that support open standards and open formats, tools where if you put in an effort (and most of these tools demand a lot of effort), you can get that work out again so you don’t have to repeat it for the next tool you try. Further discussion here and here.

This gets at the same topic. Who owns the data? There are some very important and useful aspects to having data in the cloud. It makes it very easy for people to access their data from everywhere. Small groups can have a slew of Web 2.0 applications up and running for their group with little cost for maintenance or upkeep. This has some very real benefits.

But it must be balanced against the possibility that you no longer control the data. Your work is on servers belonging to someone else. They can change ownership and all of a sudden the cloud is not so free. To me, cloud computing is great for things that need rapid prototyping, easy access and are, at heart, ephemeral.

There are many types of data. Some of it is short term. It used to only be found on yellow sheets of paper or perhaps the multiple drafts of a paper. These data fit quite well in the cloud. I have an email address in the cloud that I only use for online purchases. Anything going there is a result of those purchases and does not clog up my real email.

But it is foolhardy for any organization to put the guts of its data anywhere that it has does not have absolute control over. These are things that losing access to would have severe ramifications for the business.

So, echoing David, stay away from anything that ties you into a specific, closed format. It can come back to bite you big time.

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One thought on “A wakeup lawsuit”

  1. Re:Mangia! You are quite right about this program and there are many of us still crying over it no longer working on OSX! The next best thing, in case anyone who reads this is looking, is an application called A Cook’s Books. It can be found at the web-site http://www.3caam.com/extras.html.

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