What We Can Learn About the Enterprise Content Management Market from the Launch of iCloud

What We Can Learn About the Enterprise Content Management Market from the Launch of iCloudToday, Apple announced its new iCloud service, which follows on the heels of similar “media locker” service announcements from Amazon and Google. At first glance, this set of new hosted consumer services seems completely unrelated to enterprise content management. But, if we dig deeper, I think the reflection of three larger trends can be observed.

Mobile Media

The explosion of mobile devices has been well-documented. And now, this trend transcends consumer and business boundaries. We’ve become accustomed to having access to email and websites no matter where we are. I personally live on the coast of Maine. I can still remember feelings of astonishment the first time I responded to a work email while I was on one of the small islands in my community. Today, this kind of “anywhere computing” isn’t even noteworthy. It’s just expected.

As I’ve previously noted on this blog, the amount of data being generated and stored is also expanding rapidly. For consumers, the most significant source of data is media files. iTunes and NetFlix are probably the two most obvious examples.

Apple’s iCloud, Amazon’s Cloud Player, and Google Music are all attempting to capitalize on these trends by adding hosted services that complement their existing mobile and/or e-commerce platforms. Microsoft is rumored to be working on a similar strategy to more closely tie their Windows Phone 7 platform to their Zune marketplace.

Everywhere Computing

Within the enterprise, these same trends are pushing ECM beyond the corporate firewall and office building. Employees will increasingly be empowered to work “anywhere” by a new generation of software applications commonly known as “smart clients,” like Hyland’s client that was released in OnBase 10.0. These applications typically include “off-line” functionality that allows information to be retrieved, taken off-site, updated when network access is not practical and then synchronized with those changes once they are back in the office.

These feature-rich clients will be complimented by a variety of lighter-weight productivity tools. The simplicity of these mobile applications is currently being offset by the fractured smart phone and immature tablet markets. As a result, difficult decisions will need to be made by many organizations because their preferred ECM vendor may not support the mobile devices which their IT department has already standardized on.

The Cloud is Foggy

Finally, (in my opinion) the launch of iCloud confirms that the term “cloud computing” has lost almost all of its meaning. Apple isn’t the first company to re-categorize traditional “online services” as “cloud services.” They’re just the most recent and obvious example.

From a technical perspective, the Cloud has always been a nebulous concept. Now that it’s become mainstream, it’s even harder to pin down. In my personal opinion, John Gage’s original vision that “the network is the computer” has basically evolved into what we now refer to as “the cloud.”

Many have argued that “the cloud” refers to a specific business model. Indeed, usage-based pricing is one of the most consistent qualities shared by the major cloud vendors. The fact that iCloud appears to use a flat annual fee structure further supports the assertion that pricing is a key aspect of what the term “cloud” has come to embody. But, it’s just as easy to prove that usage based pricing has been around for decades. In my opinion, most of these concepts are part of larger business trends, like outsourcing and the mythical realignment of business and corporate IT.

In short, “the cloud” has devolved into a loosely defined marketing term, easily bent to serve the interest of entrenched technology companies. As a technology professional, this is disappointing. But, for technology buyers, this will almost certainly result in confusion, misunderstandings, and disappointment. Caution is warranted.

Over the coming weeks, I will attempt to highlight key concepts that (I hope) will empower companies to look beyond trendy marketing terminology and silver bullets in favor of clearly defined value propositions.

Justin Alexander

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