Vol.8, No. 2 • February 2000
Orbit and Questel-Orbit: Farewell and Hail
by Nancy Lambert, Senior Information Analyst
Chevron Research and Technology Company

An era has ended. After 27 years, Orbit is gone.

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 farewell.

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 New
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.

Questel-Orbit Features
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:

1. Simultaneous left-right truncation.
2. Internal truncation, both single and multi-character.
3. The LIMIT command, which lets you create a subset within a database and then search only the records within that subset.
4. Similarly, an update command, which lets you search the database’s most recent update, updates n1-n2, or years Y1-Y2.
5. Implied proximity when you search multi-word phrases.
6. Automatic, 2-hour hold when you log off.
7. A strong term-extraction function, MEM, which lets you extract selected terms; for instance, only U.S. patent numbers from a patent family.
8. The ability to create and store tailored print formats.
9. The ability to create and store database clusters.
10. Hit term highlighting (which defaults to being on, but you can turn it off).
11. A command that will automatically extract legal status information from individual databases (Inpadoc, EPAT, Patent Status, CRXX, LitAlert) or pre-defined combinations of these, and add it to a bibliographic record.
12. A command that will display U.S., EPO, PCT, and French patent and literature citations for members of a patent family.
13. Automatic retention of search statement numbers when you go between files. That is, if you generate SS 1 through 7 in WPAT and then go to IFIUDB, SS numbering will start again with SS 1; but when you return to WPAT, it will begin again at SS 8, and SS 1-7 will be available for further searching and display.
14. Flexible search history capabilities. You can print a search history from the database you are in, any other database, or all databases that you have been in during the online session. You can also print a history of a range of SS numbers from the current database or any other that you were in.
15. Enhanced date-ranging capabilities. You can search or range whole years, months, or exact dates.
16. Distributive logic. You can start a long list of terms with a field label and Boolean operator, e.g., /PN OR or /IT AND, and then just separate the terms with commas rather than having to key OR or AND between each term. (Only one Boolean operator per search statement.)

Wish List
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.

1. On Orbit, when we expanded (NBR command) on terms, subsequent NBR lists began where previous ones left off, and the NBR list items stayed available for the duration of the search session. We would really like this feature on NBR in Questel-Orbit.
2. On Orbit, we could combine both NBR and PRT SEL item numbers and PRT SEL list names with other search terms in Boolean logic statements. This too would be nice in Questel-Orbit.
3. On Orbit, we could recall a saved/stored search by SEARCHNAME/SS, getting just the results of the last set in the stored search. We could combine SEARCHNAME/SS with other terms in Boolean logic statements.
4. We need to be able to edit stored search logic with more than just a back-up-and-do-it-again capability. (Fortunately, good telecommunications software lets us edit an ongoing online session.)
5. We want to be able to edit the scatter out of statistical rankings — for instance, to combine three separate variations on DuPont’s company name into one ranked entry.
6. We need a proper KWIC display capability, especially for full-text databases, with display options that include bibliographic information (optionally with abstract text) and then keyword windows of text that contain our search terms in the required proximity relationship. The FOCUS command provides this sort of thing but requires us to go through our search results one reference at a time rather than just letting us download them all.
7. We need the auditing capability (seeing results for individual search terms) in the cluster, or multi-file, environment. It is in fact very important in that environment, because we need to know when search terms are getting zero postings in one or more of the databases in the cluster.
8. Many of us would like the IFI Uniterm and Comprehensive databases (IFIUDB, IFICDB) loaded so that the controlled terms are part of the basic index.
9. We want to be able to specify different print formats for different databases when we are printing from a cluster (something we have requested ever since Orbit introduced PowerSearch); especially since not all databases have the format of choice, for instance, the ABST format.
10. We would like less klutzy cluster searching. As the system exists, we must create and name a cluster, not just FILE the databases of choice; and we must do an ID to create family groupings, not just enter a family-grouping print command from the cluster environment.
11. We would like to be able to change SDI search logic without having to re-execute the whole SDI command again, if the recipient hasn’t changed.
12. In the best of all possible worlds, I’d like the audit capability to show individually keyed- in search terms but not (necessarily) every term searched from a cross-file transfer of hundreds (sometimes thousands) of patent numbers, priorities, etc.

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:

1. Patent citations from U.S., EPO, and PCT patents and publications, searchable both forwards and backwards.
2. ECLA codes (European Patent Office expanded classifications, based on International Patent Classifications), updated monthly; also U.S. classes, updated at least annually, and IPCs and older German and Dutch classes.
3. Data for some very old patents (U.S., French, and British back to 1920; German back to the late nineteenth century).
4. Abstract text for patent references from the late ’60s or early ’70s (depending on the country).
Questel-Orbit plans to mount full-text U.S., EPO, and PCT databases, to be cross-file and multi-file searchable with other patent databases. Some EPO and PCT text is already available — without bibliographic information. But searchers can pull the text into records in other databases.

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.

(1) 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.

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