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December 6, 2012updated 19 Aug 2016 9:27am

Q&A: The changing shape of enterprise content

John Newton has had an influential career in the content management market, having co-founded and led the development of Documentum, subsequently acquired by EMC. Today Newton is chairman and CTO at open source content management firm, Alfresco. I grabbed him on the phone for a Q&A.

By Jason Stamper Blog

John Newton Alfresco

What’s the motivation for the open source model and what do you believe is the benefit for customers?

I think the first word in open source is probably the key to the whole thing. Being open. Open source usually means open standards. Basically the freedom to be able to take and make the system do what you need it to do; to be able to move information in and out of the system, to not be locked in and to be able to be aware of what’s going on with the product in-depth.

I’ve done both models of closed source and open source and it’s very liberating to be open source – you’re not trying to hide your intellectual property and that freedom allows you to innovate a lot faster and with the participation of the community and all the users of the system. And perhaps the biggest thing is people can access the system without necessarily paying for it, try it out, so it becomes much smoother, faster on-boarding.

There are variations on the open source model. Which do you do and how committed are you to building a community?

There are several models. There’s the Apache model and we participate in an Apache project that we’ve co-led called Apache Chemistry. The Apache model is very collaborative and no one necessarily controls that, so the direction of the project can take many different forms. It definitely works for infrastructure, but not so much for applications.

There’s another model which is professional open source, where a company or some entity owns, guides and manages the open source project. That’s the way MySQL worked, that’s the way JBoss worked, and that’s the way Alfresco works as well. It works for applications where you need a stronger guiding hand as to where the product is going. There are some companies that are almost entirely ‘freemium’ [offering a free, open source product often lacking in features, in the hope people upgrade to a premium version] but that’s not us. A minority of our users are actually customers of Alfresco.

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And how do you make money?

We make money from larger customers who want the insurance policy of having their bugs fixed by the people who built the product, as quickly as possible, and who want support from the people who built the product.

Do you see Microsoft SharePoint as a competitor or complementary?

Both. Microsoft’s position is very special in that something like 95%-plus of knowledge workers use Microsoft Office in the creation of documents. We have to work very nicely with Office, so we support the same protocols as SharePoint. When you open up Office, Alfresco looks like SharePoint. We compete with SharePoint maybe about two-thirds of the time. The reasons for choosing Alfresco are that we are a Java stack rather than a .NET stack, so we can use any particular database or operating system. It’s also because Alfresco is open.

Are you noticing any changes to the type of content being stored in Alfresco?

Certainly more web content, and along with that much more rich media like images, videos. We’re also seeing more social content that is outwardly social content, but that is being round-tripped back into the organisation as web content. But the thing people actually collaborate on tends to be office documents, text documents. That hasn’t gone away, it’s just a smaller percentage.

What is the impact of Big Data on content management, if any?

I’m not one of the ones trying to push the term Big Data in relation to content. The concept of Big Data makes a lot of sense when there is a huge critical mass of information. So Big Data on top of large sites, especially large social sites, makes a lot of sense. At the enterprise scale and corporate website scales, analytics plays a role but I’m not sure it’s that much different from analytics of five or ten years ago.

What is the value of the Alfresco Platform?

The Platform is incredibly important because it helps companies bring in other things they need to integrate. When it comes to taking and applying content in the context of business processes it usually means other systems, on-premise or in the cloud, and Alfresco Platform becomes extremely important for that integration. We also have offerings of our own in the cloud, but a lot of larger organisations have a lot of caveats when it comes to putting content in the cloud.

What will be coming along from Alfresco in 2013?

We continue to enhance our cloud offering and that’s evolving in cloud time – we can bring new interfaces and protocols and iterate very rapidly, and get feedback in real-time. Our focus in 2013 is very much around solutions. You’ll see some packaged solutions from Alfresco that don’t just provide the Platform and core content management but actually solve some specific business problems and enact some of the business processes as well. Some of those are going to be based upon mobile – we think more and more stuff is going to get done on iPads and Android and so on. We’ve got quite a few announcements coming up in January.


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