Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Corus Entertainment and the High Priesthood of Content Management

Content management spans many different types of solutions, applications and functions. But when content is the actual product, the deployed applications represent usually some of the most sophisticated content management solutions out there. Media companies care about their content – it’s what they do. And so it’s not a surprise that content management reaches unseen levels of importance and sophistication in such companies. Yesterday, I had the opportunity to visit Corus Entertainment, a leading media and entertainment company in Canada.

Corus is known as the operator of some 24 television and 50 radio channels as well as being a publisher of children’s books and other content. Among their brands are HBO (Canada) or VIVA as well as Nelvana which is behind the production of children’s books and programs featuring Babar, Bakugan, and Franklin. Just like many other media companies today, Corus has to go through many changes to adjust to the digital content age and one of the steps towards that goal was building a new, high-tech facility in Toronto.

During the press conference at the opening, Corus’ CTO Scott Dyer spoke about the technology behind the new facility. Where most enterprises go through generations of deployments and updates of individual software and hardware components, Corus found itself with a unique opportunity to deploy the entire IT environment from scratch. And so Corus picked the best solutions available including a high capacity network from Cisco, servers from HP, broadcast management from Pilat Media, production workflow from Pharos, broadcast system from Miranda, and digital asset management (DAM) from Open Text. As Mr. Dyer told the reporters, the Open Text software is used for management of digital assets that has since grown into a comprehensive ECM solution managing also documents and other content types. The Open Text Media Management offering is a major part of this environment as it provides the repository that can ingest all the programming, stock and promotional content, manage the metadata and all the related content such as language tracks, subtitle files, still images, scripts, documents, etc.

What Corus does with all this technology is very impressive. The content for 24 TV channels is being ingested on an ongoing basis, resulting in 15-30,000 hours of programming per year. All of the 1,100 employees of Corus have the ingested content immediately available on their desktops via low-resolution proxy browsing and playback provided by Media Management. There are currently 2 petabytes of content – a volume that rivals the Library of Congress – stored on a 3-tiered storage system with robotic tape libraries used as tier 3. All content is ingested into the repository and stored in its original format no matter where it comes from and the conversion to the target format is done on the fly during delivery (e.g. HD to SD conversion).

All of this is done today with off-the-shelf hardware and software – in contrast to the expensive and proprietary media environments of the past. The entire infrastructure is 100% digital – in fact, you cannot find an analog player anywhere in the building. I should also not forget to mention the services provided by Siemens who put it all together – which they have done not so long ago at BBC in Glasgow.

Seeing our products in a sophisticated production environment is always exciting. And what I saw yesterday is a form of high priesthood of content management. With all the technology, Corus claims to have the most advanced broadcast facility in North America and they are probably right. In fact, it was one of the most interesting customer visits I’ve ever done. OK, the top spot belongs to a visit of a Formula 1 racing team facility in Silverstone (UK) but that’s been many years ago.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

What Was Not In the Press Release

Earlier this week, Open Text launched a new major release of its flagship product offering – ECM Suite 2010. I am not going to repeat the information about all the innovation the Suite 2010 introduced - that’s in the press release. I’d like to share a different view.

When I joined Open Text over two years ago, the ECM Suite existed as several integrated products but most of the products were marketed, sold, and deployed as discrete offerings. At that time, the technology foundation for integrating the suite was already in place but only a few of the products were using it. And while the products teams had their work cut out, we had to make it a suite on all fronts.
First, we had to figure out which products do actually belong to the Suite. Over the years, Open Text acquired many companies and so we had some of the ECM technologies in multiple offerings. Sorting out the customer segmentation and the target audience for each offering for was the basis for the Suite definition. Today, when you go to our web site, you can see what’s in the Suite and what is not. Most of the products that are not in the Suite do integrate with it, but those products target different market segments, buyers or channels.

The next issue was branding. The previous Open Text strategy was focused on preserving the brand equity of individual offerings. That has changed with the Suite when we have decided to put all the branding wood behind one brand – “Open Text.” And so almost two years ago, we rebranded all the products on the marketing side, knowing well that it will take until the major release of each of the offerings to get a rebranded UI. This week’s release is concluding this quest – at this point, the products have been indeed rebranded. The old brands are retired and the ECM Suite is here.

Then , there was packaging. The Suite started from many product lines, each with many products, modules, and add-ons. Based on customer feedback, we have done a ton of work to simplify the packaging. We have reduced the overall number of SKUs down to a third by eliminating all unnecessary complexity in packaging (yes, that’s a 67% reduction). We have also devised a handful of base-line packages that represent the core Suite – each combining some of the most commonly purchased product combinations to simplify the buying and deployment experience.

Finally, I have to mention technology. The press release talks about integration and innovation but there was no space to explain the SOA-based services such as common installer, directory services, common authentication, web services, jobs management, file transfer, common administration and many others. This relatively unglamorous stuff is what really makes a huge difference for customers in terms of their cost of ownership. And then there is all the integration based on the repository layer, process automation and user experience via portal, web, mobile, and desktop client with CMIS support.

We didn’t say any of this in the press release since the press supposedly only wants to write about what’s new in terms of technology innovation. But a lot of additional innovation has been introduced by the Suite in a way that is truly beneficial to customers.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Information Promiscuity and Information Paranoia

There are two types of people in respect to their attitude to information.

The first group is on Facebook and Twitter every day; they use LinkedIn and blog regularly. They are sharing, engaging in a community, socially networking and they don’t mind sharing information. Sharing and socially engaging with others is much more important than arcane privacy concerns. They are open and free spirited and they believe in information value. Information is not a liability, it is an asset. Thus, they don’t ever delete anything – that would be depriving the world of information which is just wrong. Their inbox is full with thousands of emails and they don’t care about filing them. They save every attachment and keep every version of every document. They believe in freedom of information. In fact, they believe that access to information is a fundamental right in a democracy.

But there are other people too out there. They don’t participate in social media, it is just a waste of time – you should talk to someone if you want to be social. They don’t share their personal information as privacy is paramount. They understand that information is a potential liability and so they don’t horde it. They are concerned with every possible legal ramification and so they clean up their inbox every night before going home and they carefully file and categorize information they need to keep. They restrict access to any piece of data they share. In short, they are very conservative about information.

What’s the problem, you wonder? The world is full of left-wingers and right-wingers, right? Well, the problem is that our attitude to information impacts they way we work with others. And so the birds of a feather keep flocking together. They attract each other, creating groups, companies and entire industries that are either predominantly conservative or liberal in terms of their information attitude. Through hiring decisions and candidates’ self-selection, companies are evolving towards being exclusively on the conservative or on the liberal side of the information divide.

So, what’s the future? Two worlds, painted red and blue and divided by an iron curtain? Is one of them eventually going down as a result of information chaos and promiscuity or as result of information paranoia? Well, maybe there is hope. I am encouraged by what the US government is trying to do. The government has been historically on the conservative side of information - they are still digesting the impact of the Freedom of Information Act which rattled every gene of their DNA. But recently, the government has been trying to open up. Driven partially by a presidential directive and partially by austere cost-cutting, the government is trying to combine its traditional security stance with proactive use of social media. And so perhaps it will be the government, finding the right balance and evolving the legislative environment towards unity of the two worlds.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

iTunes and Content Management in Consumer Applications

Many people these days gush about how awesome their experience is in the consumer space while they complain about the dreaded experience in the enterprise. And content management is one of those enterprise applications with bad reputation. What many do not realize, though, is that most of what we do in the consumer space is content management. Yes, indeed. We edit and share pictures and videos, we rip music onto our iPods, we publish blogs and microblogs and we collaborate and network with each other. All these activities deal with content – text, audio, video, and social media. We just never call it content management as that would make it sound like work. But the reality is that this is exactly the same thing that content management is trying to do in the enterprise. The main difference is that the content is jointly created and consumed by multiple users.

The consumer space also gives us appreciation for some of the difficulties related to ECM. One of the key challenges of ECM is to get good metadata attached to content. What, you don’t care about metadata? Oh yes, you do! Take your iTunes library, for example. All those names of songs, albums, and artists are metadata which allows you to organize your library and to make it useable. When you first import your songs into iTunes, you are likely to see a lot of mess. The names of songs or artists are missing and you comprehend the value of metadata very quickly. And so you spend hours cleaning it up to make sure that it is organized the way you want it. Without keeping your metadata clean, your iTunes library can quickly become a mess again which would severally limit its usefulness. And the same is true for your pictures, videos, or documents.
It's all about metadata.

The issues are the same in the enterprise, except that now we have to coordinate many people to agree on the metadata consistently. And that’s a big challenge. You know how you sometimes have to decide to organize your pictures by date, by location or by event? Well, not everyone will make the same call and with hundreds or thousands of users, the inconsistencies can become significant. To avoid the mess in the enterprise, you need a taxonomy. But that sounds like a boring kind of enterprise software that is so much less cool than the software at home. And yet, the management of content in consumer applications is very similar to enterprise content management. Well, perhaps ECM does handle a tad more complex problems…

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Are Closed Systems Winning After All?

Ever since the networked PCs started replacing mainframes, openness became the mantra of information technology. Indeed, for years we have been taught and we kept repeating that open systems give customers the ultimate benefit of deriving value from solutions while keeping our options open and prices low. But now, after three decades of pushing open systems, we may be proven wrong by Apple, the company with the overall highest market capitalization and tremendous success.

Back in the 80s, IBM was able to quickly gain huge market share with the open system-based PC in which components from many vendors could be added and swapped. The PC has quickly obliterated all players in the market, including Atari, Commodore, Sinclair, and for the most part Apple. It was apparent, that open system was the winning formula. Or was it?

While killing off existing competitors, IBM quickly faced a new set of competitors such as Compaq, Dell, HP, and hundreds of other clone manufacturers who took away IBM’s market share and who eroded the pricing down to unattractive margins. IBM also learned that giving up the operating system to Microsoft was a huge mistake, even though this move has promoted the success of the PC. In the end, IBM struggled to keep the business profitable and eventually exited it by selling out to Lenovo. Even though IBM made a ton of money initially, the open concept of the PC has failed to make it commercially viable for IBM in the long run.

Apple on the other hand, has held on to its completely closed system. Sure, it took Apple two decades to figure out all elements of the system to make it a success – computer, mobile devices, and content – but they are in an incredibly strong position today. Apple is piling up cash while running circles around any potential competitor.

So is a closed system the way to go? Well, there are skeptics who are already predicting trouble for Apple due to an attack from Google. But while Google is also bursting with cash as it created its own money tree based on advertising revenue, it is easy to see how the various Android phone vendors will kill each other quickly as they drive down prices and margins. That price war may put pressure on Apple but Apple demonstrated an amazing pricing resilience over more than three decades and they have a lock on the customers that Google does not have – content. In the end, the choices may be cheap devices with little content but plenty of advertising or expensive devices with a lot of great content.

While I don’t know the outcome of the iPhone versus Android battle, I keep wondering about the original question. Is an open system commercially viable or is it better to keep the system closed or at least some parts of it? That question is particularly interesting given the current open source movement which is the ultimate embodiment of openness. Is open source as a model commercially viable in the long run? Or is closed or a mixed model the right approach? Well, the time will show. What I do know is that to be commercially viable, both sides of a transaction need to benefit. If one side doesn’t benefit, the long term viability is in question.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

SharePoint is Like Gravity

There has been a lot written about SharePoint and how it changed the world of enterprise content management. SharePoint became the gorilla in ECM and, according to some pundits, other ECM companies should have been long dead. And yet the market is active like never before. Well, here are some of my personal thoughts and observations about SharePoint (this is not an official message from my employer and I am sure that some of my colleagues have different opinions):

1.SharePoint’s goal was to connect Office desktops:
Microsoft Office is the gold standard for office applications. However, most ‘knowledge workers’ failed to notice any new features since the Office 97 release. And with OpenOffice and other free applications, it is becoming difficult to justify the pricey upgrades for Office every 3 years. Microsoft likely knew that and built SharePoint as a way to add stickiness to Office applications by providing a seamlessly integrated way to share Office documents across groups of users. The concept was brilliant and it worked! And the fact that the office documents from SharePoint can fill up SQL Servers much faster than most other applications was an added bonus.

2.SharePoint’s success was a surprise:
I suspect that Microsoft never expected the success SharePoint would become. While Microsoft keeps piling up a ton of money every quarter, there are not many billion-dollar products throughout the software industry and yet SharePoint is apparently one of them. While I’m sure that every Microsoft business plan includes a hockey stick-shaped revenue chart, I doubt that Microsoft expected the viral success of SharePoint. The fact that SharePoint is usually deployed in hundreds of sites across the enterprise suggests that Microsoft didn’t expect it to be rolled out enterprise-wide but rather in departments. Correct me if I’m wrong.

3.SharePoint is like gravity:
Gravity is a pesky thing. Many problems would be much easier to solve if we could switch off gravity at least temporarily. But gravity is here and while we could complain about it every day, it is better to just accept it and move on. For the ECM vendors, SharePoint is like gravity. Yeah, life used to be simpler without it but it is here and we need to deal with it and move on. Today, SharePoint is to be expected in a majority of our customers just as we expect Exchange. Sure, there are some customers that don’t run Exchange but most of them do. Let’s move on.

4.SharePoint commoditized parts of the ECM market:
Yes, there are parts of ECM such as document management and collaboration that have been significantly impacted by SharePoint’s success. Those markets have been commoditized and the players have either evolved or became extinct. Moving up the stack is a Darwinian fact of life in the software business and every vendor who wants to survive more than a couple of releases has to adapt.

5.SharePoint isn’t free (even though that was some great marketing!):
Microsoft introduced SharePoint with brilliant messaging and one of the key messages was the notion that it was free. That has created a high demand which combined with the viral nature of the product propelled SharePoint to its initial success. Today, nobody really believes that SharePoint is free but that image has become an attribute of the SharePoint brand.

6.SharePoint has popularized ECM:
With its integration to Office, SharePoint has popularized the concepts of content management for the broad population of knowledge workers. Before SharePoint, content management was mostly reserved for specialty roles dealing with publishing, records-keeping, or high-value authoring (CAD, Photoshop, etc.). Today everyone gets the idea of content sharing, access privileges, and collaboration. SharePoint has popularized ECM and many of the users will evolve their needs to require some of the more specialized applications – which leads to increased demand for other vendors. Rising tide lifts all boats - at least those that don’t capsize.

7.It’s better to partner with Microsoft than to compete with them:
While Microsoft competes on many fronts with many companies, a typical ECM software vendor (between $100-1,000 million in revenue) is chump change that will be outmuscled by the sheer market presence and power of Microsoft. It is therefore advisable to figure out a strategy that allows the vendor to leverage SharePoint rather than to compete with it head on.

8.Mobility might change the SharePoint dynamic:
It’s no secret that Microsoft is currently investing heavily in its mobile platform, in an attempt to catch the train that has departed with Apple, Google, and RIM aboard. Microsoft has plenty of muscle to get into the game – they did it with the Xbox gaming console. But until that happens, the mobility story around SharePoint remains uncertain. The current trend indicates that the presence of Apple and Google smartphones in the enterprise will keep growing and that may relegate SharePoint to remain what it has been designed for – Office infrastructure rather than a comprehensive ECM solution.

9.SharePoint can’t do everything:
No matter how aggressively marketed, SharePoint is not the answer to all ECM problems. There are many problems that SharePoint either does not address at all or that it is not the best offering for. There are even new types of content management problems that SharePoint created. The reality in most enterprises is that there are many different types of applications that create, use, or consume content and SharePoint is simply one of them. Others include email, ERP systems, existing file servers, web sites, intranet sites, portals, other ECM solutions. It’s good to be a provider of one of these content applications or a vendor that can make all of it consistent through common policies and taxonomies. Or both.

SharePoint is an impressive success story. It has changed the game for ECM vendors and those, who have figured out how to leverage its success, prosper.