by Greg Coticchia

I read with great interest the recent Legal IT Insider/Orange Rag (266) July & August 2013 report about ADERANT’s new strategy entitled Aderant move away from point solutions. In the article, its states that feedback from ADERANT customers to them is as follow: ‘One issue that keeps cropping up is where firms have bought multiple third-party solutions and then have to maintain the integrations.’ And ADERANT’s response – ‘to become the source for more and more already integrated applications, so firms don’t need to use third-party point solutions;  Aderant will either develop the solutions inhouse or acquire other existing businesses and add their products to the Aderant portfolio.’

Stunning.

The response, and the strategy, is wrong on so many levels.

First some background from which I speak. I have been in the software business since 1985, when both mainframes and dinosaurs roamed the earth. Many of the so called ‘new ideas’ or ‘new strategies’ have been tried in the market over nad over again. Time sharing services look a lot like ‘Software as a a Service’ (SaaS) and Cloud solutions; VM was the name of an IBM operating system that allowed for multiple operating system images to run under one OS on one server. History does repeat itself. And so do vendor mistakes.

I was a cofounder and the CEO of eBillingHub from 2007 to 2010 when it was sold to Thomson Reuters. And in my 30 years of software I have been in every segment of software: embedded systems, application development tools, network security, system and network management, CAD/CAM/CAE, business applications, mobile apps and, of course, legal software.

The ADERANT response sounds eerily familiar. Wasn’t this the reason we were told, that Thomson Elite built 3E? Customers were tired of integrating these third party tools.  3E , introduced in in May 2006, was poorly accepted by the Elite install base. It took years for Thomson gain even a handful of 3E migrations. Most of its early customers were ‘greenfield’ , totally new customers. But the key thing I remember about 3E was the similar stance it had about third party tools. They weren’t welcome. Now, it wasn’t because Thomson didn’t want too – oh no they weren’t they bad guys – they were simply listening to their customers. And now, seven years after the 3E debacle, a system that made Apple look non-proprietary, we have the #2 in the market using the same listening techniques and taking the same strategy to market.

Well it’s just wrong.

The reaction to ‘we want all these integrations to work’ isn’t ‘then we will build it all ourselves to make sure of that’. That’s a technologists reaction to a customers need. But its not a business persons reaction.

How about building a partner and alliance program that actually works? That’s what every other major software segment does for their customers. It is such a part of the fabric of the geneal software and computing market place, that in 2002, Michael A. Cusumano, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, wrote a book on the subject entitled Platform Leadership: How Intel, Microsoft, and Cisco Drive Industry Innovation. The basic premise of this book is a review (as in looking back over the previous 30 years since the Department of Justice ruling in 1970 that IBM had to stop giving away software for free with its mainframes, therefore creating what we see as the modern software marketplace) of the importance of creating a Platform and NOT building everything yourself.

It is shocking that in 2013 a software and services company as large and successful as ADERANT would take this strategy, especially in light of 3E in the same market. Open systems, with participating third party vendors, is the proven way to gain market share and success, even in smaller, nichy markets like the legal space. Again the examples abound in the larger computing space.

In the hottest market today, mobile platforms, it isn’t Apple that is winning, even with its ‘semi propeitary operating system’ of iOS. No, it is Google’s Android. Is it as tightly integrated? No. As easy to use? No. As simple and elegant as Apple’s? No. But it’s winning in the market. Why? Despite what customers say, they want choice more than anything else. They don’t want to be locked into any one vendors system.  The vendor does of course. And even when the vendor has lcoked in the customer, when the customer is offered choice, they will run to that choice.

My experience I the legal space is none of the vendors take their partner strategies seriously.

They don’t have real partner programs that offer the complete range of tested, standardized and documented application programming interfaces (APIs). They don’t offer programs that encourage the participating of third parties to work with the vendor when the platform vendor is enhancing their product. They don’t work with the third party on the go to market so that the customer can benefit from the choices the market can offer.

Third party solutions in the legal market are looked at as necessary evils or intrusions on the business of the platform vendor. That’s a shame. No single vendor can have all the innovation and best products. Yet it’s clear that the platform time and billing vendors in the legal space believe they can do everything – they can write a better reporting system than a pure play reporting company; they can write a better business intelligence tool than a pure play BI tool; they can write a better eBilling  solution than a pure play eBilling vendor – well that last one wasn’t true which is why they ended up acquiring my company. But I can tell you with certainty, without a market based system, innovation in the  market will die. And ‘Not Invented Here’ or NIH mentality as its often referred to will reign.

In another market place I was in for many years, the network security space, and specifically the firewall market, there is a legendary example of a amazing partner program. A company called Checkpoint started a partner program called OPSEC. OPSEC (Open Platform for Security) is an open, multi-vendor security framework with over 350 partners since the inception of the program in 1997. OPSEC guarantees customers the broadest choice of best-of-breed integrated applications and deployment platforms.

Can you imagine competing security vendors feel compelled to spend money and provide adherence to another vendors security standard? Why? Because customers want choice. And how does that benefit Checkpoint? They look like the good guys and win more business. And can stay focused at what they are good at instead of trying to be ‘everything to everyone’ – which would be nothing to no one if they didn’t have this program. I wish I could tell you that this is a unique program. But these types of partner programs exist everywhere in the business – except the legal space. SAP, Oracle, Microsoft and thousands of software companies offer partner programs that actually encourage third party solutions and ensure compatibility and continued market innovation. It not only is possible – it happens everyday.

The ‘we can build it all’ mentality went out with disco. I suggest the platform players in the legal software market wake up and act like leaders.  The law firms that use their software as a platform will benefit from the choice, and so will they as the platform vendor.

Won’t be fooled again.

* Greg Coticchia is now with the Office of Technology Management, University of Pittsburgh