September 11, 2009

CMIS Standards Bode Well for Alfresco

The interweaving of open standards and open source software is common enough that it doesn't always register with folks why open source companies prefer open standards. There's this automatic assumption that if a company uses open sourced technology, then of course they would use open standards.

In actuality, there are two big reasons why any company (proprietary or otherwise) would choose to use open standards. The first (and more common, I think) reason is that introducing an open standard levels the playing field for all the participants in that sector. Smaller, growing companies can band together on an open working standard and compete against the one or two giants in the same sector.

The second reason happens less often: any company (entrenched or otherwise) in a given sector may choose to set up/adhere to an open standard because the marketplace is saturated with competition and customer growth would improve for all if standards were followed. It's a subtle difference, but it's the key reason behind the Content Management Interoperability Services (CMIS) standard in the enterprise content management (ECM) sector.

This became clear to me after I spoke with Dr. Ian Howells, Chief Marketing Officer of Alfresco, at last week's Red Hat Summit. Howells outlined CMIS for me, and its potentially enormous impact on the ECM marketplace.

Right now all of the big ECM players, SharePoint, Documentum, Vignette, tend to use document management and collaboration systems that follow their own set of formats and workflows. There's some interoperability work, but nothing really major. A big reason? While ECM has been around for quite some time, Howells estimates that only a small part of the potential customer base for any ECM solution has actually been tapped.

This gets back to the standards issue. While Alfresco can do a lot of things the other ECM platforms can do, some ECM apps can do specifically better at fax management, file sharing, or what have you. This specialization has led a lot of existing customers to go down many paths for ECM--paths that don't play well with others.

Alfresco's approach has been to try to use a broader ECM strategy that appeals to a larger customer base, as well as make it very easy for potential customers to download and try Alfresco.

Now, with the CMIS in the public comment stage at OASIS, the potential for the ECM market to explode is near at hand. With companies like IBM, Oracle, and Microsoft working on this standard, as well as the more specialized ECM vendors, there now exists an opportunity for former competitors to partner with each other and deliver joint solutions to new customers.

When CMIS is approved, customers will no longer have to take the "my way or the highway" approach to ECM tools, which has been a real barrier to ECM adoption of any kind. Given its enormous success in this market already, Alfresco stands to benefit greatly in this sector once CMIS standards are in place.

That's good news for Linux, too: Howells told me that while most customers download Alfresco for Windows in the try-out phase, a strong majority of those who choose to subscribe to Alfresco deploy on Linux platforms.