Grabbing the Opportunity

In 1984, Jochen Hummel and Iko Knyphausen registered TRADOS GmbH in Stuttgart, Germany. The name of the company came from the three words: TRAnslation & DOcumentation Software, and the company’s initial aim was to bid for an IBM translation contract. It didn’t offer technology products and began as what we would now call a Language Service Provider (LSP), although back then nobody was using the name yet.

The story of Hummel and Knyphausen, like that of other visionaries such as Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, was very much about being in the right place at the right time, and making the most of the opportunity. They focused on translation software just at the moment in which both personal computers and translation memory (TM) technology were coming of age and foresaw the role computers would soon play in translation.

Interest in translation technology grew from the 1950s, when the needs for translation expanded exponentially while the productivity of translators remained constant. This created an expensive and time-consuming bottleneck in the workflow of corporations, a problem waiting to be addressed. Since the mid-sixties, companies looked for a method for aligning parallel text and using this to retrieve information that would remove the need to retranslate what had already been translated. There may have been no one creator of translation memory but, hated by some and loved by others, the concept has become a staple of how translation is done and priced worldwide.

One of the first commercial applications was Translation Support System (TSS) developed by ALPS (Automated Language Processing Systems) in the USA. Hummel from Trados would later call it the “grandfather of all translation memory systems”, but it was too early for the company to profit from its innovation. By the late eighties TSS was taken off the market, although ALPS continued to use it in its own translation agency venture ALPnet.

Trados, the LSP, not only used early-days translation software TextTools developed by INK in the Netherlands in its translation work, but in 1987 even gained the right to resell it in Germany. However, INK did not see commercial success of their product and abandoned development, while Trados saw their golden opportunity. The company started creating translation software in the late 1980s and the first Windows versions of two of the suite’s major components – MultiTerm and Translator’s Workbench – were released in early the 90s. In 1997, Trados received a major boost when Microsoft decided to not only use their products for its internal localization needs, but also acquired a 20% share in the company. Despite competition from the likes of IBM’s Translation Manager 2, STAR Transit and Déjà Vu, by the end of the 90s it became the clear market leader in desktop translation software.

Market Leader

At the same time, two trends were becoming pronounced. First – personal computers were quickly becoming more powerful and affordable; second – due to growing translation needs corporations worldwide started switching from handling all workload in-house to contracting freelance translators. Trados wanted to capitalize on this and Hummel’s ambition was for “every translator in the world to have a piece of our software”, as stated in an interview in 1999.

Trados Translation Solution Freelance Edition 3 launched in October 1999, Trados 5 in 2001 and Trados 6 in 2003. As per the company’s philosophy, individual components like MultiTerm, Workbench, WinAlign and later TagEditor, were not necessarily bundled together, but rather required additional purchases. This led to complaints that for a typical freelancer the distribution model was confusing and software overpriced. Despite this, in 2004, Trados seemed to have a firm grip on the lead, with only competitors being Transit, SDLX, Déjà Vu and Wordfast. In a press release the same year, Trados would state that “[m]ore translators, localization service providers, and companies use Trados products than all competing products combined” and the 2004 LISA survey gave Trados a 71% market share. While not everybody was using Trados, everybody was using a product that was Trados-compatible.

The team must have celebrated 20 years since company formation in excellent mood.

The SDL Years

With Mendez and Berlitz merging with Bowne and ALPnet with SDL, the industry seemed to have entered a consolidation stage. While Trados may have been the clear leader in desktop translation software, there were enough alternative products to provide a healthy competitive environment. One of the major angles of attack on Trados at the time was its lack of compatibility with the emerging TM standard promoted by LISA – the TMX format. While Trados would pay occasional lip service to open standards and TMX, SDLX was first to be officially certified by LISA as a TMX product.

In the second half of June 2005, two major acquisitions in the localization industry became public and send shockwaves across the industry. Lionbridge announced its acquisition of Bowne, becoming the world’s largest LSP. In the same month, SDL announced that it would buy TRADOS for US$60 million. When its shareholders approved the purchase in early July, SDL became by far the largest supplier of translation memory, terminology management, and translation workflow management products and also one of the world’s largest LSPs. This stoked fears that one company was getting a monopoly on the market. In a snap poll after the acquisition, the Globalization and Localization Association (GALA) registered the following reactions from its members:

  • 68% of LSPs worried about purchasing tools from a competitor;
  • 51% felt that clients would be nervous buying technology from SDL afraid to be locked into a service purchase.

The first version of SDL Trados was released in 2006, bringing together SDL and TRADOS technology for the first time. The next milestone came in 2010 when SDL OpenExchange website was revealed, a marketplace for third-party developers offering plug-ins with additional functionality.

Through various name changes and different releases, Trados’ product continued to enjoy a dominant position in the market.

What’s Next?

In fact, the product was so successful and grew so much, it started developing a reputation for being slow, clumsy, unresponsive to complaints and finally – overpriced. The market was looking for an alternative, but competition was fragmented and yet to release a comparable product.

Only in recent years, several “young lions” sprung up offering real alternatives at much lower prices – memoQ, XTM, WordBee and a new iteration of Déjà Vu, to name the most important ones. Their selling points were the areas where SDL Trados was seen as weak:

  • Price – either lower upfront prices or flexible pay-by-month schemes;
  • Integration – including all functionality in one package as opposed to separate modules;
  • Speed – quicker to start and use and less resource-hungry;
  • Support – quick to reply to complaints and add requested functionality;
  • Cloud – Cloud versions of tools can be accessed from anywhere and on different devices, have centralized upgrades; real-time tracking of activity, plus easy collaboration and sharing of linguistic resources;
  • TMS functionality – Computer-Aided Translation (CAT) Tools are adding more functionality previously reserved for larger enterprise TMSs, such as project management, vendor management, accounting, content management;
  • Open standards – allow easy importing and exporting of files in standard formats, like XLIFF, TMX and TBX.

…and little by little, they started chipping away at the position of the market leader.

At the same time, SDL Trados Studio 2014, the latest release, has been praised by finally improving speed, fixing the most persistent bugs and being more affordable. The company seems to have started to listen to its clients and it wouldn’t be surprising if perceived competition was one of the reasons. Will it manage to retain the crown or will one of the competitors dethrone the king?

Andovar’s Take

Andovar is always looking for the best technology to make our work easier, faster and improve quality of our translations. We support open standards, flexible and modern solutions and are free to pick and choose since we do not offer any software products ourselves. Currently, our preference is for memoQ and WordBee. They are powerful, mature, user-friendly, and easy to learn and use. Both have Cloud versions, which gives all the previously mentioned advantages. Additionally, memoQ has publicly stated that they would never agree to be acquired by SDL, which means the story of Trados and SDL will not repeat in this case.

Regardless of our current choice, it is exciting to see that there is real competition in the market and good old Trados is not taking the competition lightly. And this means good news for all of us – the users!