Microsoft plans route through the desktop

Windows users will need to assess carefully how specialised their content needs are before lining up for the software giant's new content platform, says Jim Murphy


Windows users will need to assess carefully how specialised their content needs are before lining up for the software giant's new content platform, says Jim Murphy

Microsoft's approach to content management will be via the desktop. The enterprise content management (ECM) platform it announced at this year's Professional Developer's Conference in September is the widely adopted and growing Windows SharePoint Services, which essentially offers Microsoft Office users content and search services via Windows Server 2003.

Microsoft's ECM will also employ the newly announced Windows Workflow Foundation, which will itself be available in Windows Server.

Microsoft is finally firmly stating its plans for ECM, a path that was inevitable considering massive consolidation in the software market. Also, Microsoft is increasingly pressured to offer compelling capabilities and features to spur buyers onto the next versions of Office and Windows, which together make up about 83% of Microsoft's revenue.

Product developments, marketing investments and partnership efforts will be geared toward solidifying Microsoft's position. With ECM, Microsoft is not introducing a new ECM product, but enhancing and combining a range of existing capabilities to address ECM problems.

The strategy should take full form in line with the introduction of the next version of Office, at the end of 2006.

No traditional content management supplier has been blindsided by the Microsoft news. All have undertaken strategies to compete or complement Microsoft and the other enterprise heavyweights.

Documentum, for example, was acquired by EMC in an effort to establish content management's position as underlying infrastructure, right above the storage layer - that is, as opposed to the hands-on appeal that Microsoft will invariably bring.

Open Text is acknowledging Microsoft's entry and demonstrating industry and infrastructure support for Microsoft's ECM strategy. Similarly, Interwoven is adopting an "If you can't beat them, hug them" approach with an "embrace and extend" strategy to exploit the opportunity that Microsoft's foundation will bring.

Clearly, Microsoft is not trying to put the traditional content management suppliers out of business. Rather, it is more concerned with growing Office and Windows revenue and protecting itself against encroachments from IBM and Oracle.

Microsoft's advantage is not about managing a broader array of information. Rather, its appeal will be to information workers who are already accustomed to using Office and Outlook. So Microsoft proposes to bring content management to the masses gradually, rather than bringing the masses to content management, thereby supposedly smoothing the transition (that is, if they are not disoriented by the newly announced Office 12 interface).

Oracle's recently introduced Oracle Content Services 10g, by no coincidence, is also billed as "content management for the rest of us" and aligned with its Oracle Collaboration Suite.

IBM is offering an array of content management capabilities across horizontal layers of collaboration (with the Lotus line), middleware (with WebSphere), repository (with DB2), going all the way down to storage infrastructure.

At the same time, IBM is offering vertical- and process-specific systems, often with partners, to address business urgencies, while SAP also sees opportunity in content management, although its strategy tends to focus on content management, collaboration, and knowledge management in the context of specific business processes such as product lifecycle management (PLM). Still, SAP's relationships with traditional content management providers have been somewhat strained as SAP gradually introduces competing capabilities to its customers.

Certainly, Microsoft, Oracle and IBM will be competing directly for customers, but establishing and extending fruitful partner ecosystems will be the key to long-term success. Unlike structured, best practice-based systems such as enterprise resource planning (ERP) and customer relationship planning (CRM), content management needs entail variability and unpredictability across numerous verticals and business processes, so they rarely lend themselves to packaged software applications. Implementation and software partners will be needed to bring value to customers as well as protect customers from the inevitable changes in Windows and Office in the next few years.

Companies relying on Microsoft Outlook/Exchange, Office or Windows should decide whether, when and how Microsoft will play a role in their ECM strategy. If ECM is to become an application for the masses, Microsoft has a long-term advantage over other suppliers, offering a general-purpose foundation in Windows SharePoint Services today.

On the other hand, if you hope to reduce dependency on Microsoft, Oracle and IBM are also making aggressive investments to serve content management as well as related collaboration, portal and search needs. 

If you require business- or vertical-specific expertise, and your needs are more immediate than the beginning of 2007, the traditional suppliers mentioned above offer worthy, proven systems. All are also making accommodations for the existence of Microsoft, so a decision for the short term need not be short-sighted.

Jim Murphy is research director at AMR Research, specialising in information infrastructure

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