Mobile disruption blows up content management

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Last week's BoxWorks conference had as much discussion about disruption and innovation as it did about the Box products--and one theme that emerged is that these elements are intimately linked and are having a huge impact on content management.

Of course, these forces are having an impact on every enterprise software company out there, but since our focus here is content management, let's look at how they are affecting that particular area.

Harvard professor, Clayton Christensen, who wrote the seminal book on disruption called "The Innovator's Dilemma," seems to understand this better than perhaps anyone else out there. He has studied why even good companies get disrupted and his theories apply to content management or any other business.

In fact, technology is a place where disruption is particularly pronounced, and we have seen that as we have moved through the technological evolution from mainframes to mini computers to PCs and laptops, to mobile devices; there has been a corresponding shift in the way IT supports these devices.

Today, mobile is the disruptive force. It allows us to carry our computing power with us in our pockets or purses. Just how much of an impact has mobile had? Ars Technica reports that there were 6 billion cell phone subscribers in the world at the end of 2011. While that doesn't mean that every one of these phones belongs to one individual, it is clear that mobile is taking off in a big way. In the U.S. alone, there are more cell phone subscriptions than there are people.

That kind of universal presence has forced IT to rethink the way they deliver content and provision software to users. Not coincidentally, at the same time as mobile has taken off, we have had the development of cloud services to provide ubiquitous access to our content.

In his book, Christensen talks about how sustaining markets, also known as the established players, in order to maintain dominance, build increasingly complex products to the point that they surpass the requirements of most of their customers. Disruptors on the other hand, reduce complexity and price, and initially go after markets that most of the established companies aren't interested in.

Christensen's theories apply directly to content management system vendors where we have seen established players build increasingly complex systems with more and more functionality lopped on that the majority of customers don't need or want. By providing this advanced feature set, however, the vendor can justify the high price. Yet, because of the high price, they end up ignoring large swaths of the market that aren't profitable enough to consider. Into this void jumped the cloud disruptors, which are much more aligned with the new hardware of the moment, mobile devices--and which fill a need adequately for the lower end of the market that the big players can't reach.

Companies like IBM (NYSE: IBM), EMC Documentum and Oracle (NASDAQ: ORCL) made their mark and their money by being a product for the times at which they came to market--they provided software for customers running client-server systems where the users stayed at their desks using a PC or took a laptop out into the world with limited access to the enterprise software and content repositories.

And that worked fine for a time, but as the market matured, it became increasingly difficult for these companies to come up with new ways to justify the cost of the product and to differentiate themselves from competitors. So, they did what Christensen says all established companies eventually do; they grew bloated (my words, not his). At the same time, we saw innovation and disruption in the cloud along with growing popularity of mobile devices, all of which was putting pressure on the established companies

Cloud companies are in a better position to take advantage of the mobile disruption. Established players, as Christensen points out, have a very tough time pivoting in the new direction because at the beginning of the disruption cycle, they don't take the threat of the change agent seriously, and by the time they do, the disruption has already happened. 

If you doubt this, look at Documentum trying to reinvent itself as a cloud platform. It has finally recognized the need to change and the value of the lower end of the market, but because change happens much more slowly inside large organizations, it is difficult to keep up with the more nimble disruptors.

All of this means that it might be time to rethink what we need from content management in a mobile context, and if it's the same as what we needed in a client-server one. The challenge is figuring out what your needs truly are in this brave new world, and what they are going to be a year from now. Are you one of the companies that truly requires command and control, or is your priority content access on any device at any time? This is the crucial question and the wrong answer could end up costing you because disruption can happen at every level of the system--even to the customer. - Ron