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AOL Withdraws Support for PLS, Thunderstone Steps In
by
Posted On August 24, 1998


Last January we reported that America Online, Inc. (AOL) had acquired Personal Library Software (PLS), a producer of text-search software. We expressed concern at the time about ongoing software development and customer support, but company representatives assured us of AOL's continuing commitment. Recently, AOL informed PLS customers that it has discontinued PLS's commercial offerings and converted the PLS products to shareware. In connection with this step, AOL has withdrawn its support for the products, and has advised current PLS customers that it will not renew existing support contracts when they expire.

(Note: For the record, no details of the AOL/PLS deal were made available in January, but we have since learned that AOL gave $9 million in AOL stock to PLS stockholders and assumed $6 million in debt, making the total price $15 million. Those who held onto the AOL stock have now seen the stock price double.)

Information has been posted at the PLS Web site (http://www.pls.com). The following two paragraphs offer some details from "A Letter to our Valued Customers and Resellers" from PLS:

"In general, we plan to offer object code for CPL, PLWeb Turbo, PLWeb-CD, and Personal Librarian products and related documentation. These products will be available for download from our Web site without fee and under a standard license. Updates and new releases of these products that AOL decides to make generally available will also be distributed through the Web site."

"Those who wish to obtain additional training or consulting services in connection with PLS products should look to PLS's experienced value-added reseller and consultant community. Our Web site will feature links to those consultants who will assist users in finding support, training, and integration services."

At this time, users won't find much for assistance. The page for consultants is "Under Construction," and nothing is listed yet. The buttons for FAQ and Site Map lead to the same message. Note also that what is offered for download is the "object code," not the source code. Users will be unable to make any changes in the program or customize the product without the source code. I asked an AOL representative a number of questions, including what date the announcement had been made to customers, when the consultant list would be posted, and what was the availability of source code. Her response was, "no comment."

Thunderstone Software Offers Support

Since many PLS customers are now in need of alternate solutions as a result of PLS's exit from the commercial software market, Thunderstone Software has announced a migration and support program for PLS customers. The Thunderstone migration program provides price discounts for any customer replacing a PLS product purchased within the last 2 years, and assistance with converting applications to Thunderstone's text-optimized relational database management system (rdbms), Texis. "We want to ensure that current PLS customers have a stable, supported solution set into the future," said Doran Howitt, Thunderstone's vice president, sales and marketing.

Maybe you haven't heard of Thunderstone? I hadn't. Howitt said, "We're like that low-profile insurance company—advertised as the ‘quiet company'." Most of Thunderstone's employees are engineers, while other software firms tend to hire heavily in sales and marketing. Thunderstone is a privately held California corporation with headquarters in Cleveland, Ohio, that has been providing information management and retrieval software since 1981. It develops and markets a suite of software applications and tools that search, manage, filter, and retrieve information for individuals and global enterprises. Thunderstone's products are licensed to corporations, government agencies, online service providers, Internet publishers, and developers worldwide.

Until 1995, most of Thunderstone's product licenses were embedded within OEM packages developed and sold by other organizations. Notable examples include WordPerfect Corp., Dow Jones, C3—Telos, The Japan Times, and Reality Software. The increased popularity of Internet search technology has raised Thunderstone's profile in large single-site applications, like those at Novell, Advance Publications, Associated Press (for its photo archive), Ziff-Davis (for ZDNET.com), and Bill Gates' Corbis (for its Internet image library).

The flagship product from Thunderstone, Texis, is a comprehensive text retrieval and publishing package. The company claims that the system "provides significantly greater functionality than that available from PLS. The Thunderstone rdbms enables developers to create dynamic-publishing applications and database-driven web sites. It integrates the Structured Query Language (SQL) industry standard, and supports sophisticated text-searching within relational database content."

The company makes it clear that this product is for enterprise and large database applications. The cost of a license for Texis starts at $10,500 and is based on the number of simultaneous users. For customers who don't need such a high-performance solution, Thunderstone offers its Webinator software, which can be downloaded for free from its Web site. Webinator is an index and retrieval package that can function as a Web search engine. It is actually an application built in Texis. Among its strengths are automatic categorization, and a focus on indexing sites, not individual pages—which is good for finding companies and products.

I asked Howitt why they give away the Webinator. He replied that the "text indexing business is getting to be a commodity these days. For example, Microsoft gives the Microsoft Index Server free with its Windows NT operating system." Perhaps this might explain AOL's decision to discontinue the commercial PLS offerings.

Earlier in the year, Texis was put on the Thunderstone Web site to search the Internet and serve as a working demo of its capabilities. They did not set out to compete with search engines like Excite or AltaVista—and they did not promote the site—but it now logs an estimated million searches a day. Sami Menefee of Newsbytes said, "It has grown into an explosive success among Netizens, strictly by word of mouth." MetaCrawler uses the top six search engines plus Thunderstone as its choices for crawling the Web.

The PLS software had many loyal customers who must be feeling orphaned now. Thunderstone—and other software companies that jump at this opportunity—may just offer exactly what former PLS customers need—products and support.

For information on AOL/PLS products: 703/265-3406; http://www.pls.com.

For information on Thunderstone products: 216/631-8544; info@thunderstone.com; http://www.thunderstone.com.


Paula J. Hane is a freelance writer and editor covering the library and information industries. She was formerly Information Today, Inc.’s news bureau chief and editor of NewsBreaks.

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