Monday, April 23, 2012

An OpenText History Lesson

We had an interesting event at OpenText on Friday. It was the celebration of OpenText’s 20 year anniversary combined with the official unveiling of our new building. All kinds of important folks showed up - from the early founders and key managers to local, provincial and even federal politicians. The part that I enjoyed most was the panel discussion with the founders when they reminded us about the early milestones of the company.

Not many people know today that OpenText got started as a search company. The origins go back to a University of Waterloo research project led by Professor Frank Tompa - yes, as in 275 Frank Tompa Drive which is the company’s address in Waterloo today. The students under Prof. Tompa developed software to digitize the Oxford English Dictionary which led to the development of one of the first search technologies. Since the team recognized early on the commercial application of this technology, a new company was incorporated in 1991, named OpenText.  

Profesor Frank Tompa, OpenText founder, and myself, 2012
The founders of OpenText included Prof. Tompa, who’s still a professor at UW, Tim Bray, the co-author of the XML spec, and Gaston Gonnet who is today a professor at the ETH University in Switzerland. The team came up early on with the breakthrough idea to separate the search index from the content, which they referred to as “text” back then because, well, it was all about text in the pre-Web era. That allowed them to keep the index open to any type of “text” and - voila - that’s how the name “OpenText” came up. The decision to separate the index from the content is something we take for granted today but back then, it was groundbreaking.
Being able to index any content in any repository paved the path towards the then nascent document management systems. It was not a surprise, that OpenText soon got its own document management system by acquiring Odesta with its flagship product Livelink. At the same time, OpenText made a decisive move to the Web and built a Web crawler that enabled indexing HTML pages on the World Wide Web. One of the milestones became a deal when the red-hot startup Yahoo! licensed the OpenText search engine.
Tom Jenkins & Jerry Yang, 1995
Eventually, OpenText had to decide between the consumer-oriented Web and the enterprise, and chose to pursue the enterprise. Many new products and acquisitions followed but the search engine is still at the heart of most OpenText products including the Content Server which is the modern-day-incarnation of Livelink. The rest is history and OpenText is a billion dollar company today.

It was great to hear this story from some of the original founders, such as Prof. Tompa, Saman Far who was employee number 4 and Daniel Cheifetz, the founder of Odesta. As Tom Jenkins likes to say, knowing the history helps to understand the vendor’s strengths and weaknesses. Tom would know - he’s the OpenText chairman and Chief Strategy Officer and he’s been with the company from the very early days.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Millennials' Challenge

I have been asked to speak at the Canada 3.0 Conference in Stratford, Ontario next week. Canada 3.0 is a unique type of conference that annually brings together participants from industry, government, and academia to discuss the country’s digital future.

My panel at the conference will be focused on the topic of millennials which is a topic that I am very interested in. The generally accepted way of thinking about the millennials is that they are about to join the workforce with their freshly minted college degrees and that they will take over the world with their digital hipness.

Indeed, the millennials have a lot going for them. They have been born and raised surrounded by all the digital technology. They have no fear of technology and they have a new way to handle information - in fact, often an implicit entitlement to information. They have discovered new ways of collaborating and communicating with each other. They don't use email anymore, relying on Facebook and SMS to communicate instead. And, what’s most important:

They will not put up with your old ways of doing business!

Especially, they will not put up with the old clunky applications your business forces them to use. They would rather go work somewhere else!

This could be very concerning for many organizations who are faced with an aging workforce and who are struggling to attract young talent. Just think about the government, for example. Such organizations need to seriously think about how to make their work environment more attractive for the millennials. Such considerations must include the productivity tools - from BYOD (bring your own device) to social media and gamification, the millennials will want it all!

At the same time, the world of business is not all about Facebook, Twitter and SMS. In the enterprise, some serious concerns will always exist about data security, intellectual property protection, regulatory compliance, and legal risk and liability. The existing IT infrastructure has been put in place to address these requirements. So, if you [young] people want a job here, forget about Facebook and get in line! After all, your generation of young university graduates is facing the greatest unemployment rate today...

As you can see, this can easily become a pretty emotional debate. That usually makes for an interesting panel discussion. That’s why I look forward to my Canada 3.0 session. It’s titled “The millennials’ role in the consumerization of IT”. I hope to see you there!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Mobile Security Conundrum

Typing a password on your mobile device can be a pain. The keyboard is tiny and the password gets in the way of convenience and productivity which are the reasons to use a smartphone in the first place. Chances are you only have a short password that consists of 4 or 5 characters. Your password is probably a string of easy to type numbers like “1-2-3-4” or a simple word. Strong passwords consisting of a combination of lowercase and uppercase letters, numbers, special characters and at least 8-10 characters in length are not very useful on a mobile device.

The problem is that mobile devices are easy to lose and when they fall into the wrong hands, the simple passwords are just too easy to hack. On top of that, it is quite likely that many of your important files have been copied onto your device via synchronization.

With device-to-device data synchronization via cloud based synchronization tools ranging from the consumer-oriented ones like Dropbox to the enterprise-focused OpenText Tempo, security is becoming increasingly a concern. For a minute, let’s not worry about the security of the actual repository and the private cloud vs public cloud debate. Let’s talk about the security of the data stored on the device.

The synchronization ensures that there is a current copy of your files on each mobile device which is tremendously convenient, especially if you are switching between devices throughout the day like I do - iPhone, iPad, work PC and home iMac. But the convenience comes at a price - you have to trust that each device is secure and the security starts with a good password. But good, strong passwords are just too impractical on a mobile device and most users don’t use them.

How do we solve this conundrum?

Well, there's not much you can do in the short term other than educating the users or perhaps imposing draconian password rules if the device connects to your corporate network. The draconian approach may work but it will likely result in undesired behavior - the users will find ways around your network security.

In the long term, the device manufacturers will need to step up. The devices will need to be secured via a typing-free authentication method. One such method involved biometrics. Fingerprint scanner, face recognition or retina scan could solve the problem. Some of us frequent travelers have signed up for easy border crossing services such as Nexus or GlobalEntry which use the retina scan technology. It works! In fact, these technologies are available for our smartphones today, albeit they are not quite the mainstream yet. Scanning is still relatively slow if I want to make a quick phone call but probably faster and easier than typing a strong password. And much more secure!

Voice print based passwords are another possibility. Combining the pass phrase with the color and intonation of your voice is faster and more convenient than typing on a small screen. But the ambient noise might represent a challenge. Besides, I don’t want to sit on a plane next to someone repeating his password once every five minutes...

Another possibility is the use of NFC technology (near field communication) which uses an RFID chip. This chip could be carried on the user’s body in the form of an ID card, bracelet or ring (remember Scott McNealy’s Java ring from the 1998 JavaOne conference?). Such loosely attached chips could still be lost or stolen but even with that risk, the security might be stronger than a “1-2-3-4” password. The chip could be also implanted into the person’s body which would make things much more secure and much more convenient. Imagine if your device could verify your identity several times per minute without ever interrupting your work!

OK, OK, I can hear your screams about Big Brother and the government’s invasion into your privacy. But what privacy? If you move around a city, your image is captured on hundreds of security cameras. To get a driver’s license or a passport, you’ve surrendered your picture and fingerprints. Consciously or unconsciously, you pass through multiple security checkpoints every day - from transportation security, public building entrances, hotel check-ins to in-store purchases. Oh, and your mobile phone includes a GPS chip that can be tracked by law enforcement even if the phone is switched off.

Alright, implanted RFID chips may be still a bit of a stretch. But somehow, we will need to solve the conundrum with strong security on mobile devices...

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Social Divide

We live in a new world today. We are hanging out on Facebook, sharing our wisdom on Twitter, posting links on Google+ and building our professional networks on LinkedIn. The new world of social communities is great - it allows us to keep in touch with our friends and network with people who share our interests. We can hardly imagine the world before social media - it has become a part of our lives. Right?

Well, not so fast! I am again and again reminded that there are many of my friends, colleagues and acquaintances who don’t participate in any of this. They are not on Facebook, they don’t tweet, if they don’t work at Google, they are certainly not on Google+. If these folks happen to have an account on any of these networks, it usually doesn’t include a profile picture and no activity has been posted in well over a year. Social networks have clearly no appeal for this crowd.

This is not a generational issue. It is not a demographic issue - at least not by the traditional ways of defining demographics such as age, gender, race, or income. It is also not that these folks aren’t social. In fact, many of them are very sociable and have a strong network of contacts and friends.

I suspect that anyone who has not embraced social media yet is not likely going to do so anytime soon. They can’t be forced. For every rational argument pro social networking, they have a rational argument against it. They usually state security and privacy concerns, they say that it is all a waste of time or that it is all about self-promotion. But I suspect that they simply are not interested because it is not “their thing”. There are simply people out there who are choosing not to participate in social media.

Whatever it may be, we might be witnessing the emergence of a new social divide. It just may happen, that our future society will consist of a social media class and the anti-social media class. This is not the first time this happened. We have presumably left behind a few people in the past. When Gutenberg invented the press and popularized books, not everyone started reading them. In fact, literacy is an issue to this date. When email replaced letters, not everyone embraced this trend and there is a portion of the population keeping the postal service on life support today. The same thing might be happening to social media.

The next time we use sweeping generalizations about how the nature of work has changed due to social media and how social software revolutionized customer engagement, we should remember that there is a group of people choosing not to participate. Perhaps they will be forced to join in eventually. Or maybe, the social networks need to step it up and provide services compelling enough to attract these folks.