Although Octopart and its investors may be frustrated, it does Digi-Key a disservice to characterize it as "evil", not "good" or a company that isn't concerned with its customers - it is extremely concerned with customer satisfaction and I have been very pleased with every interaction I have had with it.
Sure it would be great if Digi-Key facilitated Octopart's objective, but that doesn't justify conflating it with the all-star "evil" hall-of-famers.
I think that what frustrates Paul is that Digi-Key is actively trying to block innovation in part search because they don't want price competition. Part search today is like travel search in 1995. I used to go straight to American Airlines to buy tickets and that was fine but how much nicer is it to buy tickets online now? I even travel more because it is easier to find things.
The only thing that Octopart is trying to do is make it easier for people to find parts and Digi-Key has said that they don't want that to happen. They have specifically told us that they don't want us to exist because they don't want price comparison. We keep Digi-Key on the site because it makes our users happy. You'll have to ask Digi-Key how getting rid of Octopart helps their users.
Your comparison to travel is an interesting one, because despite Travelocity/Orbitz/Kayak/etc. some airlines (Southwest) can still only be searched via their site. Ironically (despite the recent fiasco) I would consider Southwest to be a very innovative, pleasurable-to-fly airline.
Any claim that the desire to maintain control is only for entirely selfless reasons should always be met with the highest suspicion, as would any other claims that something superficially self-serving is actually done for selfless reasons.
Note that 'highest suspicion' != 'immediate condemnation'.
It is always possible that the superficially self-serving motivation is not what is truly driving a decision, but it's usually the way to bet (and you can be sure that it doesn't hurt), most especially at the emergent organizational/institutional level, rather than the personal.
It is definitely nicer to buy tickets, but the race to the bottom in pricing has made the flying experience itself (not just the airport) a misery. There are predominately two options - be miserable with everyone for whom price trumps all (see also Walmart) or spend much, much more for a decent experience. There is no choice of spending 20% more to have a 20% better experience.
So while I value the ease of search and the low prices it precipitates, I am concerned that price competition will force a decline (or a polarization) in customer service. And maybe it is unavoidable.
As the joke goes, to become a millionaire is simple. Start as a billionaire and buy an airline.
Even if I had no evidence, my default assumption would be that they were good until confronted with significant evidence that they were evil. And between good and evil there's a nice-sized neutral middle area which it appears you have transited in one fell swoop based on your sole piece of evidence.
I'm not sure what other evidence of goodness you seek than customers' experiences with them. I have found their prices competitive - as another poster said - lower on some items and higher on others. They have treated me fairly. I don't believe that they are engaged in any immoral enterprises. I agree it would be nice if they cooperated with Octopart but to say that makes them evil is absurdly hyperbolic.
I can immediately think of some (non-evil) reasons for Digi-Key to prefer not to have Octopart include its pricing. It has invested in a web site which provides an excellent user experience and they would prefer not to make it easier for customers to use Digi-Key's web site as a reference manual for lower cost competitors (whether or not you believe this is inevitable). They would like to avoid doing business with customers who are concerned solely about price. They would like customers to purchase their higher-margin items based on past experience purchasing lower-margin items even though the higher-margin items might be cheaper elsewhere.
Your theories about why Digi-Key wouldn't want their prices to be publicly known are very inventive, but Occam's razor suggests the explanation is what is usually is in such situations: They are trying to suppress competition.
First, bodega and convenience store owners don't order smokes from Philip Morris, they get all their stuff from various distributors. The stores themselves are usually locked into one distributor for junk food/smokes and another for liquor. Depending on how low you go on the convenience store food chain, often times the "distributor" is just a guy with a truck. Thus I'm not sure a good online business could be made aggregating the various prices of cigarette distributors. A useful startup idea would be a location-based mobile app that would tell you which bodega nearest you carries the cheapest cigarettes. You could make it non-evil by selling ads for nicotine replacement therapy that you would have to click through before getting the price for a hardpack.
As far as Digi-Key goes, they aren't the biggest distributor of electronic components... maybe in the top 20, or maybe top 10. However,they probably ARE the biggest distributor that will sell small lots to hobbyists. They are also one of the major employers in a small town in a rural area that has had a flat economy for decades. The only other employer of note is the snowmobile factory. Most of the money in the area is made by landowners who are paid your tax dollars to not farm their land, or else grow sugarbeets, one of the least efficient ways of obtaining sugar. Since they would have had to pay the most, those same farmers voted against school improvement bonds every year I lived there...so I'm going to have to go with "evil" on stupid farm subsidies but now I'm really digressing...
I'm going to have to vote "not evil" for Digi-Key. They know they are competing on price and are doing what they can to avoid losing business. If sales go south, they have to lay people off. Most of the employees don't have anywhere else to go find work. From my limited personal experience, there isn't a CEO caste at Digi-Key with golden parachutes who all stay rich whether or not the company does well. If they lose business, everyone gets fucked. I'm guessing they are cockblocking Octopart out of fear. This sucks for Octopart and is inconvenient for people prototyping electronics, but is it evil?
EDIT: what's really evil is that unknown or expired link error!
When Microsoft accused Linux of violating 50 software patents, most people thought they were pretty evil. The claims were frivolous and their aim was to preserve their market share at the expense of consumers. Likewise, Digi-Key makes the frivolous claim that by displaying their public information and linking to their webpage, Octopart is acting illegally.
This is not a debate about whether Digi-Key is good for the town of Thief River Falls or if Digi-Key should be making money. They have as much right to make money and keep their employees happy as Microsoft does, but when they use their muscle to wrongfully stifle innovation at the expense of consumers, it shouldn't be surprising that some people would call them 'evil'.
What is public about it?
It looks like there is a larger back story to this than was originally obvious to me from your essay and that has loomed very large in your estimation of Digikey's character. Framing it as a David and Goliath morality play is good marketing but I think a more nuanced view is reasonable - they're somewhat less good than I originally believed.
The parts supply industry is not an industry of monopolies. There are a few large names--Grainger, McMaster-Carr, MSC, Digi-Key--that probably account for 25% of the market, and then a very, very, very long list of names most people have never heard of.
Ironically, Ma & Pa Electronics are frequently the ones with the highest prices. Large distributors like Digi-Key are often less expensive than small local shops.
Yes, some companies are running about doing things that are obviously good (feeding the hungry, clothing the poor), but for everyone else, I think 'good customer service' is the rarest and best compliment, because it implies a positive relationship.
You make a good point; I don't think I can argue against what Octopart is trying to do from any kind of good vs. evil ethical standpoint. However, I can understand a business such as Digi-Key wanting to maintain control, and they could easily argue it is for the benefit of the customer. For example, when a customer searches Octopart, are they going to also get a list of complementary parts from each supplier? I doubt it. What about helpful charts, material safety data sheets, and CAD schematics? If someone was just scraping my site and hijacking the search functionality but failing to deliver the rest, I'm not sure I'd want my name attached either.
Of course this is really coming at it from the wrong level. The truth is that Digi-Key can simply ignore you, and it doesn't hurt them in the slightest. And while doing so, they can be sure they aren't reaping any of the negative consequences of being associated with you either.
Also, the most interesting thing about Octopart is the line item that says how many parts are in stock, not the pricing.
I agree with your point about prices. Most people using Octopart, Digi-Key and Mouser aren't too concerned with pricing. Life would actually be easier for us if we hid Digi-Key's prices but we don't because we want to display all the information we have and because some of our users do find it useful.
It's the law of unintended consequences: by creating a directory of parts where the only organizational information is price, you indirectly encourage people to buy from the cheapest distributor. The cheapest distributor will tend to be the company with the deepest pockets, biggest warehouses, and crummiest customer service.
Let me give a real-world example: I've worked part-time for an internet service provider for a while. Our customers can call us up and (usually) reach a person right away. The tech support guys also happen to have sysadmin privileges, so if there's something wrong with their maildir, it can get fixed right away. We spend the rest of our remaining energy constantly working on new services and upgrading existing ones. So, we have decided to compete in the customer service and innovation arenas.
However, we can't compete on price. We've had several customers cancel service with us and move on to services like NetZero or PeoplePC. Sometimes we get a call back a few months later from the customer, all in a panic, because they can't get help with their computer anymore or the installware is behaving badly.
Nobody at the ISP is getting rich. We all work pretty hard to provide a service in the community. I think that given PG's definitions of "goodness", we'd mostly qualify.
Now let's say somebody comes up with a way to shop for internet service providers by going through a directory. The customer selects their region or city, and gets a list of possible internet service providers, along with the prices for service.
We'd stop getting phone calls from prospective customers, which costs us the opportunity to show prospective customers how easy we are to deal with. Customers would tend to buy the cheapest services, maybe without ever realizing that for just a couple dollars more a month they might have an option that's better for them.
We would be forced to either cut our prices, at the expense of our other services, or we'd be forced to scale back operations a lot (which would again cut into our ability to develop other services), or we'd go away altogether and customers really would lose an opportunity.
Without defending them, I can see that this might be where Digi-Key is coming from. If they're not interested in competing purely on price, they could see it as unfair to be forced to do so.
For your part, it sounded at the conference like your goal at first was just to make it easy to find parts. Then, you figured that having price information would be useful too. But, if your goal is to provide a "good" service for people, I don't think you can stop there. I think you're going to have to come up with a way to list customer service reputations for the various distributors, as well as their ability to have the parts on hand, ship them out quickly, handle returns or other problems, deal with hobbyists with smaller quantity orders, etc.
(apologies for link dup)
One possible way to address this would be to incorporate some kind of a service metric into Octopart, similar to the way that pricewatch evolved.
Basically, Digi-Key is using their size in order to prevent free market competition in their industry.
I don't really understand the legal position of scraping (and I'd love to see an accessible semi-authoritative explanation of the current state), but I do read lots of TOS's that basically say that that information is _not_ "public domain".
I'm in spiritual agreement with you as to what benefits part buyers the most (I think most people are wise enough to factor in some level of service into cost), but I think it's useful to think about Digi-Key's motivations in more dimensions than just good/evil. Again, I offer the pricewatch feedback/stars as an initial step that might address at least one apparent grievance. Not that that would stop them from fighting you (and good luck on that).
There is no difference between what Octopart is doing and what Google is doing. Both companies crawl the web and mine their data sets for useful information. Typically, the word "scraping" is used to imply mal intent but I don't think it has a good technical definition.