Celebrating its silver anniversary, Innovative Interfaces, Inc. is both elder and edgy
By Brian Kenney -- Library Journal, 09/01/2004
It all started with the miraculous "black box" back in 1978. It allowed librarians to download OCLC bibliographic records into the CLSI circulation system, without rekeying data. Twenty-five years and many modules and releases later, Innovative Interfaces, Inc. (III) sits securely as one of the dominant players in library automation.
Over the years, nearly all of its competitors have gone out of business, been sold, or undergone radical reorganizations. In 2003, III surpassed the competition with sales to new customers and ran a very close second in overall contracts. Long a strong player in the academic market, it has steadily grown its list of public library clients. As III celebrates its silver anniversary, LJ decided to learn how the firm continues to thrive.Is the proof in the pudding?
The best way to understand a company is through its customers, and the record-breaking 1400 librarians gathered in Boston this past April for the annual Innovative Users Group (IUG) conference provided plenty of opportunities. You would think the conference would be product-specific, but largely the event was full of lively and savvy librarians committed to pushing ahead library services with technology.
Academic librarians discussed how to manage e-resources, public librarians showed how to push best sellers info out to users, and everyone talked about ways to integrate electronic and traditional collections. If you measure an ILS by the quality of its customers, then III's dynamic bunch means great things for the company.
The IUG—an independent, self-sustaining organization that dates back to the mid-1980s—held its first conference in 1993. "They support each other in making products work beyond how they were intended," says Peter Murray, assistant to the director for technological initiatives, University of Connecticut (UConn) Library. In the latest development of the web OPAC, for example, "you can do almost anything you want in how you create the interface...and the IUG is a place to share those sorts of results."
A key activity of the IUG is prioritizing system enhancements, which the members vote on, then pass along to III. The IUG is creating a knowledge base on its web site, pulling together content like Q&As, training tutorials, and programming scripts.
Murray, who was an III customer when at UConn's Law School and was 2000 IUG chair, says the relationship between the company and the IUG is unique in the library world. This balance between independence and involvement works to foster, not squelch, creativity, Murray says. For III, the conference is like an extended focus group. Over 40 III employees were in Boston, some as copresenters, many just to spend time with customers. And customers value speaking with product developers, customer service managers, and top brass.
"I was trying to get Millennium to run on thin client with little luck. No one else had done this, and the help desk had no experience," says Carol Wu, head of library systems and technology at Brock University, St. Catherines, ON. "I explained to Jerry Kline [III's chair and CEO] that if I needed it, other libraries did, too, and I'd be willing to beta test it. The day I returned to work, there was an email from a product manager who helped make it work."Conservative by nature
III has been long known as "the Cadillac of library systems." It is known to provide its users with a solid, comfortable ride and few bumps (like downtime) along the way. The tag also implies that III is both expensive—which is hard to determine—and conservative.
Some customers caution against confusing conservatism with stability. Certainly III has benefited from wise, if not bold, tech decisions made early on, such as the choice of UNIX as an operating system back in 1985 and the use of Java in developing the web-based, graphical Millennium in the late 1990s. Perhaps because of these decisions the company isn't known for making radical changes. Instead, "every release introduces improvements in small and large ways as technology allows us," says Kline. "In developing Millennium, our goal was to keep our existing partners moving forward, to create as little disruption for our customers as possible, and to introduce state-of-the-art technology."
Kline emphasizes that development is with libraries. "We seek constant feedback. We don't create something then try to make it fit." Customers value the focus on them and the freedom to upgrade at their own pace, without having to migrate all at once to a completely new system. "Everything integrates with what you already have; there isn't a huge learning curve," Wu says.Radical by design
At the same time, III has a history of developing products outside of the integrated library system (ILS) that are "radical leaps forward that plug into the ILS," as Murray describes them. These include INN-Reach, a union database product that supports patron-generated interlibrary loans; AirPAC, which brings the OPAC to handheld, wireless devices; and electronic resource management (ERM). Recent projects include Ecommerce, which lets users make online payments, and Online Patron Registration.
Kline sees new products as coming from two sources: by observing other industries and seeing how their successes (like self-service) can be translated to libraries and by listening to librarians as they try to solve problems.
INN-Reach has had a career arc. Developed in 1992 with OhioLINK to serve as a union database for 84 institutions, it has developed into a product with even more benefits: the ability for users to move material from any participating library to its local branch where it can be borrowed. It's in use by diverse groups, including the Salt Lake City PL, Sacramento PL, and Jefferson County PL, CO. This past summer, the Library of Michigan contracted with III to provide a statewide online catalog and resource sharing system that will connect academic, public, and school libraries, III and non-III customers alike.
The development of ERM is a good example of III's ability to observe the market and then act collaboratively. "We heard our customers talking about how difficult it was to manage their electronic resources," says Betsy Graham, VP of product management. "Where they had the experience, we have database knowledge." From 2000 to 2002, "[Kline] poked around at this, listening." In May 2002, the company met with librarians from University of Washington and sketched out the pieces of the ERM puzzle. They brought in Washington State, Ohio State, and the universities of Western Australia and Glasgow. "The need was great, and it was a condensed development process." Released in 2003, it's the first ERM product to market, generating over 80 sales, including non-III customers, such as Cornell University. "We're already looking at enhancements," Graham says.Dollars and sense
More than ever, librarians are looking closely at the financial stability of their vendors. "This was a key question as we looked at new systems," says Barbara Genco, director of collection development, Brooklyn PL. "We came away convinced that III is vested in the health of our market, not trying to milk libraries."
III is fully owned by Kline, who bought out cofounder Steve Silberstein in 2001. "We can do what our customers want us to do, not what a corporate parent dictates," Kline says.
"III's strength is its business model," says Murray. Unlike many other vendors, Murray explains, the health of the company isn't reliant on new company sales, and substantial investments support the growth and maintenance of the system. "However, it can seem like everything costs money, from enhanced tables to increasing your number of users," says Brock's Wu. "You can't afford everything, you have to pick and choose." Still, Wu agrees that it is better to pay more for a "stable, quality product that invests in itself. It makes sense from the perspective of product development and—in the long run—libraries themselves."
Adding to the sense of stability is III's management team, many of whom have long tenure: Charles Markley, VP, chief architect (21 years); Sandy Westall, VP, library service (21 years), Leslie Straus, VP, worldwide sales (18 years); and Graham (21 years). "They're the decision-makers," Kline says, "not some board of directors that doesn't know our industry."Brooklyn in the house
Library automation is a highly competitive industry; new sales are captured when libraries migrate to new systems. An asset for III lies in retaining its customers in the transition from its legacy Innopac to Millennium. In addition to international sales, III's recent growth has come by attracting large public libraries.
Public libraries have always been a minority among III's customers. "I think they're waking up to the power of the large public library market," says Brooklyn's Genco.
Recent sales to big, largely urban libraries (San Diego; Brooklyn; San Francisco; King County, WA and Pittsburgh's Carnegie) have been a challenge, especially in handling acquisitions and holds. "We have unique needs," Genco says. "We have centralized selection, we work with many different jobbers with multiple drop ship locations. We handle large volumes of transactions and holds." She reports that there has been a learning curve on III's part but gives high marks to the module managers, as well as the OPAC interface, "which the public loves."
The creation of the new King Library, a joint use facility of San Jose PL and San Jose State University, winners of LJ's 2004 Library of the Year Award (LJ 6/15/04, p. 34), motivated those libraries to migrate to III. "We needed a system that could support both academic and public library needs and penalize neither," says Jeanne LoFranco, circulation manager at San Jose PL, which implemented Millennium in July 2003. LoFranco also pushed III in new directions, especially in supporting self-check. "We have a goal of 85 percent self-check usage.... It was a definite learning curve for III staff, but they've been very responsive."Libraries at the center
Kline is passionate as a businessman. He's equally passionate about libraries and their future. He's delighted that kids, surfing on their phones, will be able to get to library content through AirPAC. He loves that with INN-Reach "a library can go from offering 300,000 titles to three million. If libraries can make large collections easy for patrons to access and easy for staff to stock, it will revolutionize library service."
But Kline keeps returning to the importance of the library as place, an interesting perspective from the CEO of a software company. "We'll never out-Google Google, or out-Amazon Amazon, although we can learn from both." But neither can these companies ever be part of the community like the library is. "That's how we compete. By doing what we've always done, just better."
|Brian Kenney is Editor, netConnect, LJ|