EMC’s Flagship Document Software Wakes Up to Web 2.0

7/22/08Follow @wroush

The news today out of Hopkinton, MA-based EMC (NYSE: EMC) is that Documentum, the company’s massive software suite for managing business content from e-mail to HR forms to press releases, is getting the beginnings of a Web 2.0 facelift, with new features such as tagging, ranking, groups, Twitter-like messaging, and a vastly improved user interface on the way. And the company says even more Web 2.0 features, such as wikis, blogs, RSS feeds, and social networking are coming in 2009. It’s pitching the improvements as a way for companies to tap into the innovative spirit of the Web 2.0 world without giving up control over security and workflow.

Depending on what kind of person you are, you can see this as an ironic co-opting and watering-down of the Web 2.0 movement’s ideals of open collaboration—many Web 2.0 technologies were born, after all, in direct opposition to the rigid communication structures of big-company bureaucracies—or as an encouraging vindication of those ideals, and as a sign that corporate America is finally listening to its workers. (Who are, by the way, flocking to the new technologies whether companies want them to or not: just look at the millions of workers who’ve installed third-party desktop instant-messaging software from Google, Yahoo, or AOL rather than use their company’s own e-mail systems to exchange quick messages).

“It’s critical that we come out with something like this, just to keep people engaged,” says Karin Ondricek, an EMC senior manager for product marketing who recently walked me through today’s “6.5″ release of Documentum. “You can have the world’s greatest content management system but if people aren’t using it, you have a lot of great information not getting into the system, and a lot of checks and balances not getting used, and a lot of human error and waste.”

The core of Documentum 6.5 is a new Web-based client or central user interface—formerly code-named Magellan and now called CenterStage—that includes features such as smarter search tools, group workspaces, and new ways of organizing documents visually, such as an iPod-style “image carousel” and sneak-peek thumbnails. A simple version of the interface, called CenterStage Essentials, will be available to existing Documentum users for beta testing starting September 4, according to EMC’s Developer Network blog. An advanced version called CenterStage Pro, expected to be available in early 2009, will include now-standard Web 2.0 features such as wikis, blogs, RSS feeds, a search box that allows employees to search both internal and Web resources simultaneously, and Web-based access to the system from outside corporate networks.

Even EMC is acknowledging that the company needed something like CenterStage Essentials to function as a dashboard for the powerful but sometimes unwieldy machine that is Documentum. “We have been known as having the best platform but not the best client,” says Ondricek. “If you need to bank your business on something, Documentum is where you go—the SEC, the FDA, all of the major regulators use us, because the backend has always been our expertise. Our client has been a weak spot. But with the new client, people are immediately going to be able to pick it up and know how to work it. If you have an iPod and you know how to use the cover flow wheel you are going to know how to navigate through our search results.”

CenterStage is also designed to help Documentum compete with other Web-based enterprise collaboration systems, such as Microsoft’s Office SharePoint Server, that are also being souped up with social-computing capabilities. But at the same time, EMC is trying to reassure managers who may fear that bringing these wacky Web 2.0 approaches into their business is tantamount to unleashing hordes of MySpace, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter users in the halls. “The Web natives of the world have come up with ways of collaborating and organizing and authoring content that the enterprise can benefit from—but the enterprise isn’t really suited to the raw Web 2.0 tools, because it needs some amount of structure, control, and security,” says Ondricek. “So what our 6.5 release is all about is taking all of the innovation that we’ve seen in the Web 2.0 world and bringing it into the enterprise and supporting it on an infrastructure that still gives control.”

By control, Ondricek is referring to the work flow procedures and rights-management technologies that have long been part of Documentum. The system can make sure, for example, that all the right people have seen and signed off on a press release—and in the proper order—before it leaves a company’s walls. It can also prevent copying and forwarding of confidential documents, and provide companies with the backup copies and audit trails they need to comply with modern legal and accounting requirements.

Under the hood, Documentum 6.5 has a new XML database that allows the system to store, search, and repurpose XML documents; a new “Media Workspace” tool that lets users upload, view, and annotate media assets such as photos and video; and a new Web page building tool based on Adobe’s Flex framework for interactive Web applications.

All of which may sound like stuff you’ve been using on the open Web for years. In fact, the whole “Web 2.0″ theme is getting old enough to start attracting some derision.  But there’s a good reason why you don’t see the latest social networking fads showing up as part of an EMC product right away: EMC only wants the good stuff. “As a content management systems, we may lag what’s happening out in the Web 2.0 world,” says Ondricek. “But having a two year lag is actually okay in many cases, because we are taking best practices and incorporating them into the system.”

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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