By 1993, the I.T. world’s transition from the calm and settled order of host-terminal to the mosh pit of client/server-based networks was in full swing. CIOs everywhere were struggling with glitch plagues, mired in endless finger-pointing wars, and trying to find time to think about security, training, maintenance, outsourcing and all the other issues that darkened their skies.
One of the more compelling of these problems was the fear that files of corporate importance?policies, benefits, sales information?would end up dispersed on individual desktops, with only one person having direct access to or even knowing about them. To those raised in the host-terminal world, LAN architecture looked like a system designed to blow files into the dark corners of the enterprise and keep them there.
Sensing a sales opportunity, a handful of vendors began to publish software that would re-create (and hopefully improve on) the centralization of the host-terminal world while staying within the LAN context. These “document-management” products not only provided common libraries for important texts, but usually supported such clever features as structured searches, storage management, version and revision control, workflow or-ganization, audits, archiving and document manufacturing?making documents out of documents. In April 1993 we reviewed both the products and the problem and ended up persuaded that all these features were more than just conveniences: “As more and more information is created and stored electronically, corporations [will] need to invest in powerful document-management tools,” we declared.
As Star Trek’s Spock once said, it seemed logical at the time. In practice, most companies figured out how to get along without the technology. Tom Bartley, who worked for PC Docs, one of the primary document-management vendors (which was acquired by Hummingbird in 1999), says that as people became more familiar with LANs, they found cheap, if inefficient, ways to work around these problems?like e-mailing their department to see who had a given file. As storage costs fell, so did the cost of storing many copies. Operating systems, networking and database programs started to come with rudimentary management features. “I sometimes think the invention of the subdirectory killed the industry,” jokes Bartley, now working at a practice-management software vendor, Elite Information Systems in Los Angeles.
The sector did have buyers?according to a study by AIIM, the document-management trade association, total sales in 1996 were just under $1 billion?but these were concentrated in sectors that had document control at the heart of their missions, such as law firms, government offices and financial services.
Then, from the mid- to late ’90s, the emergence of the Web and e-commerce blew a new mosh pit open, many times larger and more threatening than ever. In two years the relevant constituencies went from small, stable, easily defined and internal to very much the opposite. New classes of documents, from HTML to interactive media to dynamic texts (documents that constantly change in real-time) appeared. Component reuse (as in images) became the norm. If offices did not become paperless, at least the paradigm of the printer-oriented page, which had guided most document-management design decisions, suffered a terminal breakdown. Once again CIOs are facing very painful management issues.
It is natural to wonder whether history will repeat itself?whether companies will again succeed in finding simple, cheap, informal ways to handle what is now called content management. From a distance it looks unlikely; the problems seem more severe. One symptom of that severity is that there is no unified definition of the problem and no consensus about how to deal with it. Vendors are rushing in to the market from every point on the IT compass, ranging from the old document-management sector (FileNet), digital asset management (Artesia Technologies), database (Oracle), multimedia (Corbus), Web management (Vignette), to academic research (Scopeware). Even Microsoft finally has a product (Sharepoint Portal Server). Some vendors specialize either on specific applications such as proposal generation or fax handling, or vertically, within industries. “The jury is still out on the structure of the [content-management] industry,” says Geoffrey Bock, senior analyst at the Patricia Seybold Group in Boston. “Now it is more of a meta-industry.”
On the other hand, a number of researchers are working on techniques for solving content management from the network end, a bit like the subdirectory did for early document management. The hope is that new protocols such as XML resource description framework will make the Net semantically competent?providing a networking environment that will understand requests, frame its own searching tasks accordingly, locate the appropriate pieces of information and process them. If that works, the need for a local content-management solution will be reduced. The effort seems like a tall order, but it is attracting a lot of talent. One of the lead researchers is a gentleman named Tim Berners-Lee, who a few years ago invented the browser. He can at least be assumed to understand the problem, since he created it. n