Orbit and Questel-Orbit: Farewell and Hail
Chevron Research and Technology Company
Actually it’s not
like that at all. Much that was good about Orbit lives on in the new merged
Questel-Orbit, which incorporates strong points from both old systems.
Nevertheless, the era of Orbit per se has ended. As a patent searcher who
has used Orbit since 1974 and passed on suggestions to Orbit staff (both
independently and as a charter member of their Advisory Council) for nearly
that long, I want to take this opportunity to bid Orbit an affectionate
I also want to compile a brief history of Orbit’s interesting and indeed checkered past. Orbit went through a variety of owners, none of whom supported it well or developed it to its potential, until finally Questel bought Orbit in 1994. [For more details on early history and an analysis of Orbit’s history of mismanagement, see Mick O’Leary’s article “Maxwell Online at the Crossroads”(1).]
Beginning in 1969, System Development Corporation (SDC) created Elhill, the Orbit predecessor, for the National Library of Medicine. Orbit was the commercial offshoot of Elhill and became publicly available in 1972.
In 1987 the Maxwell empire bought Orbit. Orbit moved into the McLean offices of a Maxwell company, Pergamon Infoline, and became Pergamon Orbit Infoline, under Jim Terragno’s leadership. One of the less successful products to come out of Pergamon (before Orbit’s acquisition) was Video PatSearch, an early software to provide front-page patent images as part of search output. Unfortunately, Video PatSearch did not take advantage of the good indexed patent databases available on Orbit; it included only a rather simplistic, biblio-and-front-page-abstract database of U.S. patents.
In 1989 Maxwell bought BRS and the BRS Search software and renamed the whole group Maxwell Online. Maxwell later bought the publishing company Macmillan and put Maxwell Online under Macmillan.
At the time of Robert Maxwell’s death in 1991, Macmillan brought in Andrew Gregory to represent the company during the 2 years that Maxwell’s affairs were being settled and to get Maxwell Online into shape to sell the components. For obvious reasons, Maxwell Online shortly thereafter underwent yet another name change, this time to InfoPro Technologies. PowerSearch, Orbit’s multi-file search capability, was released in June 1993 under Gregory’s auspices.
In 1994 Questel, the French-based online host (a part of France Telecom), bought Orbit and named the composite company Questel-Orbit. For a short period the company was Questel-Orbit in Europe and Orbit-Questel in the U.S. (Collectors of Orbit-related memorabilia have thermochromic mugs bearing both variations of the name.) John Jenkins took over leadership at this point. Jenkins produced the newsletter “Inside the PTO” and introduced QPAT, their Internet-based, full-text U.S. patent database.
Mike Wilkes took
over leadership of the U.S. Questel-Orbit office in 1996. He merged the
sales and marketing staffs from the two offices and introduced QPAT version
2, with the full-text EPO database.
Finally, as of January 2000, David Dickens was named the head of the U.S. Questel-Orbit office, as well as becoming Patent Business Director for all of Questel-Orbit.
Merger of Questel and Orbit
Until early 1998, the new owners kept the Orbit and Questel hosts separate. But they realized that this couldn’t go on forever; it cost too much to mount their major databases on both hosts. Which host to keep? American and Japanese customers used Orbit more; European customers used Questel more. But Questel was the newer software and had more room for development, including full-text capabilities beyond the 26-year-old Orbit software; and besides, the parent company was based in France. So Questel-Orbit decided to merge the two systems and base the new host, Questel-Orbit, on Questel.
This immediately created a challenge for the company. While Questel had strengths of its own, it lacked many systems features that Orbit searchers, especially patent searchers, depended on. Equally a problem, it lacked many important patent databases, most notably Inpadoc, IFI Comprehensive, and WPAM, the file that Orbit created some years earlier by merging the indexing from the American Petroleum Institute’s patent database into the Derwent World Patents Index — a file mounted exclusively on Orbit then, Questel-Orbit now.
So the Questel-Orbit people set themselves an ambitious goal: By the end of 1999, Questel-Orbit would have the Orbit databases and the Orbit systems features that their major customers considered essential. They named this project Intellectual Property Gold (IPG), to the groans of a few of their Advisory Board members.
There followed a
very busy year and a half. The Advisory Board accepted, however reluctantly,
that Questel-Orbit would never make the improvements to Orbit that they
had wanted for years, since all energy would now go into developing Questel-Orbit.
So we advisors devoted the next two annual Advisory Board meetings to listening
to progress reports on IPG and requesting enhancements that we wanted on
Questel-Orbit. Amazingly, their heroic systems people met their goals by
mid-1999 and even exceeded those goals by coming up with enhancements their
management hadn’t thought possible, at least not so soon.
End of the Old, Start of the
After staff and searchers spent a few months troubleshooting and testing out all the new goodies on Questel-Orbit, Orbit came to an official end on November 30, 1999, 6:00 p.m. EST. I had a chance to say a special good-bye, because Mike Wilkes asked me to do the last Orbit search ever to be done. On November 30 Questel-Orbit staff issued me a special user ID and password. They were to call me at 5:45 p.m. EST to establish a conference-call linkup so we could hear each other talking. I would then do a short online search in California (a bit shorter than I had intended, since we didn’t actually get started until 5:53 p.m.) while a large group of partygoers — Questel-Orbit management and staff and visiting searchers and database producer reps — watched from the Questel-Orbit offices in McLean. I deliberately chose a search that highlighted some of Orbit’s special cross-file capabilities; but I suspected, from the sounds of champagne corks popping on the other end of the phone line, that the subtleties of my search strategy were lost on many of the audience members. Then, promptly at 6:00, the system kicked me off and died.
Requiescat in pace!
Now an equally interesting stretch began. Like many dedicated Orbit users, I had quietly resisted switching to Questel-Orbit until the last week in November — my searches were too complicated, my clients in too much of a hurry to give me time to search an unfamiliar system, etc., etc. All of a sudden, I had no choice.
Needless to say,
when I plunged into my normal mode of multi-file/cross-file searching on
Questel-Orbit, the phone lines burned between California and Virginia as
I came up with intricate questions and discovered interesting bugs in the
system. New systems problems surfaced. For instance, deduping of patent
records in a multi-file environment did not work when one of the files
was WPAM, the API-Derwent merged file. And an old problem popped up, to
my great frustration, one afternoon after all the McLean staff had gone
home. How many of you remember “Continue printing yes/no”? Just imagine
how long it takes to download 300+ records when you have to key “yes” after
each one. I will say, my first wish list item is that Questel-Orbit might
have postponed closing Orbit for another month and avoided putting an extra
burden on users madly rushing to try to get searches finished up in time
for the holidays.
However, their systems people are working the bugs out very quickly, and we die-hards are learning the new software and coming to appreciate its capabilities. There is a learning curve, of course. Theoretically, Questel-Orbit accepts basic commands in both Questel and Orbit formats; but the similarities are only skin-deep, at best. For instance, truncation symbols are different; proximity operators are different; AND does not automatically execute before OR, so you must use parentheses in complex Boolean expressions.
The enhanced Questel software does have powerful features, many of them original to Questel and some of them added with the enhancements. For instance:
There is, of course, still a wish list. Orbit was an elegant, concise, and flexible command language, and some of its nicer capabilities are still missing from Questel-Orbit. Also, capabilities that Orbit never had (but we asked for over the years) are not yet available on Questel-Orbit. A number of items came up at the joint U.S.-European Advisory Group meeting in December. Questel-Orbit systems people took lots of notes, so some of these features may be in place by the time you read this.
Plans for the Future
Questel-Orbit’s strategy is to focus on its core strengths: intellectual property information, patents, and trademarks. The U.S. office will manage patent information (with David Dickens as Patent Business Director); the French office will manage trademark information (with Pierre Benichou as Trademarks Business Director).
The Questel-Orbit staff is producing some new databases of their own. One of the most important will be Inpadoc Plus, which will contain current Inpadoc data plus additional information from the EPO:
Online, Questel-Orbit plans to expand cluster searching capabilities, introducing many of the features from Orbit’s PowerSearch. They also plan to introduce a form of PowerIndex, a powerful multi-file searching feature.
Finally, they are
developing QWEB, Internet-based access to the full range of databases with
all the online command capabilities. Initially this will provide a lot
more speed, to the extent that, for instance, downloading Derwent graphics
will take seconds instead of minutes per record. QWEB will also permit
users to export text and images in RTF (rich text format) into word processing
programs. Later, as linking capabilities grow, QWEB will permit linking
from database records to full-text documents. QWEB will also incorporate
a free translation program that will provide machine translations between
most common languages (not including Japanese, at first).
For much of Orbit’s existence, information pundits predicted its imminent demise. We long-term Orbit users scoffed at the doomsayers, although we regretted Orbit’s loss of market through years of stagnation and mismanagement. But in the end, both sides were right, in a positive way. Orbit is gone, but many of its best features live on in Questel-Orbit. The new management is committed to supporting and developing the system, and indeed, usage has grown in recent years. There’s a lot of life left in the old war horse — or rather, the new war horse — and we patent searchers look forward to riding it into the future.
O’Leary, Mick. “Maxwell Online at the Crossroads.” Online 16(3),
May 1992, pp. 29-33.
My thanks to Jon Simons of Questel-Orbit for his help and input.