John Newton’s keynotes from Alfresco Developer Conference – what to think about Alfresco’s future?

John Newton is one of the founders of Alfresco and the CTO of the company. He is also visionary guy in the ECM landscape and needs not one, but two different keynote sessions to say what he has to say. And even though he is the man behind a hugely successful commercial open source project, he is not made of that stereotypical open source cloth like Eric S. Raymond. In fact John Newton is an enterprise guy. So much enterprise guy that he can stand without a suit on the same platform with a VP from Oracle and still look enterprisey.

NOTE: I can’t do full justice to John’s presentation at Developer Conference, as everything here is just my interpretation on what he said and meant. If possible, I really urge you to join in hear him talk at the New York Developer Conference in person.

As a background information I would suggest to read hist blog posting from last december ECM predictions for 2010 as it – at least to my mind – opens up his ideas quite nicely and also explains why Alfresco is doing what it is doing.

Go on, read it if you haven’t read it before.

He showed us one of his older slides which is still acutely relevant.

Boundaries between organization and the outside, as well as between different systems disappear. We need tools and systems that can integrate and collaborate with other systems. There will not be single ”be all and end all” enterprise system mandating how information flows in closed gardens, but rather cornucopia of different systems and applications which need to use the same information.

As an reference architecture he showed following excellent diagram:

Diagram captures following points nicely:

  • We should think our systems also in social – not just in transactional – context. Social Business System is great term to capture this viewpoint. It is people – those social creatures – who will try to do knowledge work with our solutions
  • Our solutions need to help and empower knowledge workers to work better, not to hang up them on unnecessary road blocks
  • Amount of data which moves inside and outside of organizations in different conversations will be in superscale. That will open interesting new challenges.
  • Deployments of systems will be from on premises into the cloud ( platform as a service etc. ) and everything in between. We need to be prepared for that
  • Knowledge work will be done in different channels and systems. How will they work together as a single platform.
  • Open standards will play a important role in integration and interoperability. Without it there is no new value creation
  • Internal collaboration or external customer engagement – it should be the same for the platform

The future is full of possibilities, but there are still challenges to be sorted and figured out.

I absolutely love the term ’Systems of engagement’. Two concepts: system of engagement and system of records make nicely the distinction we all should be also making in our applications and systems, and know when our systems are which.

Related to the subject, interesting webcast about Sales 2.0 and enterprise IT. Geoffrey Moore talking about systems of engagement and systems of records. Webcast actually has a lot great material in it, same material which John showed in his presentation to set the context – so spending one hour to listen to Geoffrey Moore talk is actually time well spent. There is no reason for me to try to explain all the points John and Geoffrey made, go on and listen it straight from the source.

Just in case if you did not listen to the webcast, I repeat the most important points – so that the end of this posting will make any sense.

Enterprise IT investment and innovation is slowing down, where as consumer IT is on fire.

Consumerization of software and services has raised the bar for everyone. If you can be so powerful as consumer with Facebook, Google and Amazon.com – why couldn’t you be as powerful at work too?

New systems of engagement are interaction oriented, not transaction oriented.

They are also user centric, not data centric.

So what does this all have to do with Alfresco?

Social Business Systems and Alfresco

Alfresco is a great platform and repository for content centric applications, that is for sure. Big question is whether people will realize it. If Alfresco does not have great user interface, great marketing and great story to tell for anyone who is searching any kind of content management solution or application – it might not get into the game, when people look social solutions. Alfresco’s story is still so much about ECM that it is hard to approach if you just need something simple in the beginning.

If Drupal, Jive, Sharepoint or some other tool has a great out of the box experience and allows you to start fast, why would anyone be interested to take a look at Alfresco? If people are not in the process of getting ECM-system, how can Alfresco get into the game and inside companies also via smaller projects / needs?

It seems that Alfresco will try to answer to that question and consumerize the user experience and make it easier to take Alfresco in use also in smaller installations. I really liked the expression ”Alfresco for the right brain”, meaning that the UI should be intuitive and help people be creative, not just logical.

This apparently also means changes in licensing, so it will be interesting to hear what kind of models they will eventually be. If small Alfresco deployments become competitively priced against other supported commercial tools, then we might see proliferation of Alfresco installations as well as possible future consolidations from multiple installations into larger clusters.

What Alfresco does

Alfresco also wants to play well with others, and acknowledges that other applications are used within the enterprise. CMIS standard is the big bet on interoperability, which would guarantee that Alfresco could work as a repository for multiple different systems and applications.

Other social business systems

But naturally Alfresco itself needs to go forward and be compelling platform for development. Apparently Alfresco is already developing social features into the core, making it easier to develop such applications on top of Alfresco.

Social content services - coming to Alfresco

Share will become the platform on top of which you can customize your Alfresco-applications. As it was originally intended more as a product than platform, they need to do more work to make it easier to customize and extend.

And if you are a java developer with experience in Spring Framework, you can’t find a even closely comparable, as competent or feature rich platform to develop with.

Content services for Spring

I really like the above picture as it nicely puts different features in perspective and shows how different components are cleverly decoupled from the core, making it easier for you to build your applications and solutions around the extensible core.

Idea is great. Many parts of the execution are also already there.

It will be seen how well it will get communicated, marketed and evangelized.

SharePoint

There should not be any content management discussion without mentioning Sharepoint.

Microsoft is aggressively pushing Sharepoint into the enterprise and when they get a hold in there, it is ever harder to fit alternative systems into the mix. And what is more important, Sharepoint seems to work and people like those solutions. Problem for Microsoft seems to be that at the moment there is not enough talented Sharepoint integrators available – which is self evident in some markets by looking at recruiting services and by searching for available Sharepoint jobs.

Agressive pricing cuts compared to list prices ( See online calculator from Sharepoint community: http://community.bamboosolutions.com/blogs/sharepoint-2010-price-calculator/default.aspx ) and good out of the box experience makes it easy for Sharepoint to gain access to many companies. It just fits into the windows infrastructure and feels quite natural to use, even though it would lack more sophisticated and powerful features.

But Alfresco can work as a good alternative to Sharepoint and offer an attractive path for growth when content management needs change.

And it seems that the open source story does give a nice edge. So far customers seemed to have liked the fact that Alfresco is open source:

Open source is a major factor in choosing Alfresco

And like we all know, we developers love open source.

So what does this all mean for Alfresco?

I would say that we live interesting times.

When Alfresco started, they thought that they would start to work with smaller companies and projects – but instead it was big companies and big brands that wanted to use their platform. That has laid the solid ECM foundation Alfresco has.

But times have changed. Financial crises have reaped havoc in budgets, social media has been all the rage and Sharepoint – as well as other competitors – are attacking at the gates.

I honestly believe that Alfresco is doing some really smart things. It will be open for 20/20 hindsight later on whether these actions are or were sufficient.

I’ll enumerate things I really like:

Activiti

This is really nice step into the direction which might solve some interesting human / social interaction challenges in development. The geek in me is really, really excited – but then again I also know that at the same time, this is not the most important ace in Alfresco’s sleeve.

It is important, but not sufficient.

Chief Community Officer

Yes. I think this is important.

I don’t know what is the state of community between partners, but from my point of view the Alfresco community is in really poor shape compared to open source projects which are built only by passion.

Yeah, integrators are busy making projects and might not be keen to educate new competitors. Also people are adults, working in companies – which means that they might not hang in forums and other online outlets after working hours. But at the same time it means that there is no real community.

Sorry guys, but it is true.

As a comparison you need to look only for example Plone, which has an excellent community and an interesting product. They don’t have enterprise quality software, but they have people who are passionate about the work they do for the project – either paid work or for free.

There are lively discussions and design ideas thrown on Plone developers mailing lists and people help each other on plone-users mailing list, similar to the Alfresco forums. They have open sprints where people come together to code and collaborate, they have community based happenings around the world and organize also commercial grade conferences. For example right now Plone conference in Bristol.

They have a true community. And it is brilliant.

Luis Sala has a great task in his hands. How to motivate, energize and create community worth of 300 million dollars.

Consumerization and decoupling

I think this is a great move. Alfresco needs to be easier to approach – and also priced accordingly, almost as a consumer product. Questions on forums seem to quite nicely reflect this too. Enterprise edition is quite affordable for real large enterprises, but really expensive for small installations.

At the same time on technical side I think the decoupling of repository and clients is a great move, and if Share truly changes more into application platform with easy customizations, it can open doors for numerous different new Alfresco installations as a slightly modified collaboration platforms, just like Sharepoint is.

However as Afresco is open source, it open much more interesting customization and growth paths for in-house developers who can easily learn Alfresco technologies with the right help.

The book

And that is where the Professional Alfresco-book comes into the picture.

It is just brilliant.

It is marvelous.

It is just that good book, describing everything you need to know to get up and running with Alfresco. If you can’t get approval for training, or are building proof of concept on your own time, then this is a great resource. However it is funny to see that there is not enough endorsement for the book in the community.

Alfresco should be having book raffles every week for new community members, sending ebook-versions for free for potential adopters – and/or have great packaged deals for partners to buy books at cost to be shared to potential clients’ technical staff.

At the same time it can be seen as a double edged sword. As Alfresco becomes so darn good and information readily available, it is harder and harder for partners to justify their work – if customers can do their POCs and simple projects for almost ’free’ in house.

But then again it is better to lose to in house Alfresco development and see the community & ecosystem to grow, than to lose the customer to competitive products.

Alfresco jump start -training

If this training will be priced at similarly competitive prices as before the conference, then it will be a hit.

Training was excellent jump start – and I could easily recommend it to customers who are starting to use Alfresco, but do not have the self discipline to real Professional Alfresco and try to learn just on their own.

So.

In conclusion.

We are living interesting times.

I honestly believe that Alfresco is in great transition and there are possibilities to make the future really interesting for all of us. There are really, really smart people working for and with Alfresco – and I have no doubts that Alfresco, partners and the community can do great things – if we work together.

I am extremely impressed about all the possibilities I do see with Alfresco and looking forward what the next year brings along. But then again I am not a professional analyst, technology pundit or veteran industry thinker. I am just a bloke from remote scandinavian capital.

If you have had patience to read this far, it means you are interested about the subject. I would like to hear your comments and thoughts about the subject.

What do you guys think?

Ps.

You can follow John’s tweets at http://twitter.com/johnnewton.

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  1. Steve sanoo:

    Nice summary. I’m looking forward hearing the presentation in person this week.

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