In which I make one apology, and two lengthy explanations

Posted on Sat 31 March 2007 in misc

I recently insulted Richard Wallis and Rob Styles of Talis by stating on Dan Chudnov's blog:

To me it felt like Talis was in full sales mode during both Richard's API talk and Rob's lightning talk

I must apologize for using the terms "sales mode" and "sales pitch" to describe their talks. They were not selling anything; no tangible product was available and no price was attached. My mistake was one of terminology; I believe Richard and Rob were in full marketing mode on behalf of the Talis brand.

My perspective on this comes from having been a product manager for a commercial product and having been fortunate enough to have proposals accepted at open source conferences. My approach to avoid accusations of using the community as a sales platform was to make it very, very clear when a presentation I proposed was related to my product by using the name of the product in the title of the proposal and the presentation. I also proposed and gave presentations on topics unrelated to my product or company. If people wanted to find out how my product integrated with a given open source technology, they knew they could attend my talk about that product; likewise, they were able to avoid my talk about that product because I had made the subject clear in advance. The community also learned that they could trust that I wasn't going to spring product pitches on them in the middle of my unrelated talks. I considered it a matter of personal integrity - and I made a lot of friends during those years.

So maybe I have overly-sensitive marketing senses as a result of my prior experiences as a representative of commercial interests. Or maybe I'm all alone on this, out on the edge of the code4lib community. But I feel that I have to explain why I believe Richard and Rob were in marketing mode during their presentations at code4lib 2007.

Richard Wallis

Richard's proposal for the conference, which was voted in by the code4lib community, was submitted as:

Title: Library data APIs abound! Richard Wallis, Talis

From Z39.50 to xISBN, they share the limitation of providing a single

stream of data from a single source.

How to add value to data from one source with relevant data from

another, and how do you orchestrate that interaction in a scalable way?

A review and practical demonstration of augmentation APIs and their

orchestration in a way that would make those used to Unix Pipes

principles, feel at home.

I felt, and still feel, deceived by the presentation that Richard actually gave at the conference because it was simply a demonstration of Talis APIs.

Richard responded to my comment:

The only Platform that is currently openly delivering that functionality in that way is the Talis Platform. Therefore as all the examples are based upon Talis Platform capabilities this can unfortunately be easily interpreted as a sales pitch.

Nevertheless, looking at the proposal I submitted and the presentation I gave, I think my presentation was mostly as advertised[...]

"mostly as advertised" suggests that Richard knows he made a mistake. His presentation wasn't advertised as a demonstration of Talis-specific functionality. All that Richard had to do to avoid any whiff of deception by commercial interests from the beginning was to include the word "Talis" in the text of the proposal. As in:

A review and practical demonstration of Talis' augmentation APIs and their

orchestration in a way that would make those used to Unix Pipes

principles, feel at home.

One little word, and this really wouldn't have been a problem. People would have voted on the proposal with the full knowledge that it would have been a Talis demonstration. Or they wouldn't have voted on it as a result. Either way, I wouldn't have had anything to complain about.

Rob Styles

Rob was personally offended as well. At the end of his response was a lot of hyperbole about "evil vendors" and "scary vendors" that has no relevance to anything I said, and which I will not discuss. He also made a reductivist argument suggesting that as we all get paid to write code for libraries, you can't draw a line between business models. Well, you can draw a line if you consider the degree of freedom associated with that code. If you share that code freely with others, that's a hell of a lot different than if you make the APIs available, but require your users to store their data on your servers and pay for the privilege to use those APIs in conjunction with your data.

What I will address is Rob's stated motivation for giving that lightning talk:

The reason I chose to do the lightning talk was essentially because I saw a lot of talk about Open Source and yet one of the biggest problems we face (all of us, not just me) is one of Open Data. I probably was "in full sales mode" but for Open Data, not for Talis.

If so, there is an incredible correspondence between the substance of Rob's talk and Talis' trademarked phrase: shared innovation (yes, this is literally a trademarked phrase). Watch Rob's talk again. Note how many times Rob mentions the keyword "share", "shared", or "sharing" (I counted 4). Note the slides in the middle of the presentation that pick up keywords highlighted on Talis' home page. Note that Rob ends the talk with a slide showing Talis' trademarked phrase. In the marketing world, this would immediately be recognized as a branding exercise: you're attempting to make a connection in your audience's minds between your brand and a few key elements. And that audience just happens to be a room full of the most influential library developers in the western world!

Sorry, Rob, but I simply can't buy your claim that your lightning talk was not a marketing pitch for Talis. Colour me skeptical.