The Jury is Out on Microsoft's ECM Plan

Now that analysts have had time to review and digest Microsoft's plan for enterprise content management, they are starting to weigh in on what to expect.
The world's largest name in software has been largely absent from the enterprise content management (ECM) game, but Microsoft presented a plan for ECM when it announced its Office 12 software in September. Now that analysts have had time to review and digest the strategy, they are starting to weigh in on what to expect.

Microsoft's ECM offering is to be built largely on its SharePoint technology and integrates with Office applications. It will offer document management, document workflow, records management, and Web content management. Since it uses applications that many knowledge workers are already familiar with, it figures to be easy to use and administer. The new products required to run the solution will be available in 2006.

The irony in Microsoft's role in the ECM landscape is that organizations of all sizes have struggled to manage the increasing amounts of digital content they have created over the last several years. Much of that content was likely created with Microsoft Office applications.

A recent Forrester report evaluated the top enterprise content management vendors according to 53 criteria. The report liked Microsoft's vision, but noted that a vision is all there is for now. Microsoft has a long way to go to catch IBM or EMC/Documentum, which Forrester picked as the top ECM platform vendors; and Stellent, Forrester's top pure-play vendor.

Michael Sampson of Shared Spaces Research & Consulting expects the costs of upgrading to Windows Vista and Office 12, as well as newer server technology, will keep all but the most loyal Microsoft shops from adopting Microsoft for their ECM needs in the near-term. There's also the problem of Microsoft's track record with new releases.

"Taking historical precedents into consideration says that Microsoft's ECM platform will undergo a number of significant architectural twists-and-turns before being finally baked. Customers that buy in early will face expensive upgrades, migrations, and re-work of business-specific applications in order to keep in step with Microsoft's revisions," Sampson wrote in his report "Microsoft's ECM Platform: Embrace, Tolerate, or Reject?"

On the other hand, Microsoft does have the advantage of being a known name, Sampson said, and the company isn't going anywhere. Its ECM platform will have broad capabilities for smaller organizations with simple needs.

In the end, Sampson recommends Microsoft enterprise content management for clients willing to make the necessary upgrades and who can wait two years. He expects the bugs will be out circa version 3. Sampson recommends that medium and large organizations having trouble with their current ECM offering and need help check out Documentum, Vignette, IBM, Open Text, Hummingbird, or Interwoven; and IBM's Workplace or Oracle for smaller organizations.

Tony Byrne of CMSWatch.com echoed many of the same sentiments when the announcement was made. "I would still advise that if you have a content management problem right now, you should go out and address it with one of the many mature tools in the marketplace — keeping an opportunistic eye on forthcoming Microsoft offerings, but not waiting for cavalry from Redmond to rush in and save the day."

It makes sense for Microsoft to enter the ECM game, according to Joe Wilcox, Microsoft analyst at JupiterResearch and author of the Microsoft Monitor blog, but he expects the offering to have very general functionality that will not work for people and enterprises with very specific needs.

"When making IT purchasing decisions, should IT managers be looking for software that does it all, or something that is specialized?" Wilcox said. "When one company tries to do everything well, it doesn't do anything well."

Wilcox said that in his first take, Microsoft is adding workflow capability to its products, but not necessarily to the process that customers have or need.

Smaller businesses, which are more likely to be complete Microsoft shops anyway, are in a better position to adopt Microsoft ECM because they have scale and fewer processes. Large organizations, those with 10,000 employees or more, have more heterogenous IT environments. They would have to invest in a lot of Microsoft technology and change their processes, making them unlikely to show interest, Wilcox said.

Adopting Microsoft's ECM solution will not only require upgrading operating systems to Vista and Office suites to Office 12, but some combination of the latest versions of Windows Server 2003, BizTalk Server, Sharepoint Portal Server, and Exchange Server. There is a method to the upgrade madness if you're Microsoft. Windows and Office are huge cash cows for Microsoft, and two-thirds of their revenue comes from the U.S. market. One of the ways to drive upgrades is through the cross-integration of various products.

Wilcox is also concerned that Microsoft stands to alienate its loyal group of development partners by developing solutions the partners already address (such as workflow, in the case of ECM). This could eventually drive those partners to develop for competing operating systems like Linux. But in the near-term, there is a bigger problem with getting customers to buy into the upgrades needed for Microsoft's ECM plan.

"Most people that want Office and Windows have it," Wilcox said, "and are satisfied with the version they have."

This article was first published on IntranetNews.com.






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