‘He-man’ Dual Control marketing and upstream software

Neil McNaughton compares three revamped interpretation suites this month to the frequency of London buses. He then changes gear, recalling his days as a learner driver in a vehicle equipped with ‘he-man’ dual controls, and investigates the ‘black is white’ approach to marketing software.

New offerings in the geoscience workstation space are looking rather like London buses this month. You hang around waiting for ages, then three come along at the same time. This month, Schlumberger’s hegemonic Petrel sees revitalized competition from Baker Hughes (page 12), Geographix (this month’s lead) and Landmark (page 3).


Chatting with a friend at the SPE in Florence last month—BTW, what a great location for a tradeshow—I got into one of my rants about press releases and counter productive marketing efforts. Reading hundreds of releases every month at least puts me in a good position to contrast and compare—and perhaps offer some advice as to what goes wrong. My friend suggested that I write a book on the subject—which on reflection I think is a great idea. In fact I may start right now by recycling some editorial contributions to this new body of knowledge. What follows is, perhaps not Chapter 1, but maybe a section of the future oeuvre.

When I was a teenager learning to drive some schools were introducing ‘dual control’ systems. While instructors could already grab the learner’s wheel and steer the car around a little old lady on a pedestrian crossing, in some circumstances—like when the tyro turned briskly into a one way street going the wrong way—they felt the need for more control of events. Hence ‘dual controls,’ a replicated brake system so that the instructor could stop the car in an emergency.

Now as you all know, driving is, and was even more so in the middle of the 20th century, a quintessentially macho activity. Driving a (preferably big and powerful) car implied that the driver was also big and powerful. The big problem with dual controls though is that they are essentially sissy. What self respecting (macho) learner driver is going to get into a car with somebody else’s foot on the brake? Dual control manufacturers and driving schools were facing a marketing problem and decided to address it head-on as it were. If you have a sissy thing to sell, you need some wording that addresses the perceived weakness and makes a strength out of it.

What better way than a brazen claim that black is in fact white? Enter the rebrand of the dual control system as ‘He-Man Dual Controls.’ I kid you not, I learned to drive in an automobile which had ‘Equipped with He-Man Dual Controls’ plastered all over it!

I am not yet sure how I will be weaving the He-Man Dual Controls (HMDC) story into my marketing narrative. Does such an approach actually work? Can you sell a product by blustering its greatest weakness into a strength? Let’s just say that HMDC defines a point in marketing taxonomy—it is a technique that is in use today—in oil country software and IT at large.

One of the most persistent HMDC (and possibly the most successful) usage in IT centers on the dichotomy between buyers and sellers. Buyers want flexibility and freedom of choice. Sellers want lock-in and perpetual license sales. So how does a seller sell a closed system with proprietary formats that doesn’t integrate with anything—not even other products in its own range? With HMDC marketing that’s how. Thus a closed product is marketed as ‘open.’

The example that springs to mind is of course Schlumberger’s Ocean development environment for Petrel, with its tag lines of ‘open innovation, ‘open by design,’ ‘open framework,’ ‘open specification’ and so on. Ocean is a closed, proprietary system. Develop code for Ocean and you can be sure that it will not run with anyone else’s products. But HMDC marketing ‘opens’ what was previously ‘closed.’

HMDC marketing was also in evidence in our story last month in regard of Petrel’s capacity to load data. Your users report long load times? Quick! Rush to press with some HMDC marketing about loading an impossibly large data set in record time.

But I don’t want to beat up exclusively on Schlumberger. Landmark was an early adopter of HMDC marketing back in the day, with its ‘OpenWorks.’ What is ‘Open’ Works? It is a closed, proprietary interpretation system. Like Ocean it has an application programming interface—hence the thin claim to openness. Software with an API is better that without. But develop with the OpenWorks API and you can be sure that your code will only run against Landmark’s products.

I checked out Microsoft’s MURA material to see if HMDC marketing was in evidence here. I have to report that no, Microsoft is not claiming openness for MURA. But this may be more because for Microsoft, ‘open’ is the devil’s work.

Oil companies themselves are not immune to a bit of HMDC ‘marketing’ of their own IT initiatives. Let’s suppose, a big company, after years of backing various standards initiatives has more or less thrown in the towel and decided to go it alone with an in-house system developed entirely with proprietary systems. All that is lacking is a bit of HMDC marketing—to define the mish-mash of selected tools as a corporate ‘standard.’

Well I’m not entirely convinced that I can keep this up for the length of a whole book. Not while I have a day job anyhow. But I do think there is an underlying point to be made as to the industry’s use and abuse of ‘open’ and ‘standard.’ There is actually a lot of really good software around that is either open or standard and in some cases both. It can be very useful and if leveraged judiciously in a company’s workflow can avoid reinventing the wheel. If you develop in Java, porting from Linux to Windows is a cinch. If you develop in .NET then you will never port to Linux. You may even have a hard time porting to the next manifestation of the Windows dev kit. In contrast, I have Unix shell scripts I wrote 30 years ago that run fine on my brand new Mac Mini.

The real problem is that, when compared with vendors’ spend on HMDC-type ‘persuasion,’ the marketing clout of the open source movement and even the standards organizations is nearly zero.

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