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Open source startup takes on content management market

Open source startup company Alfresco is banking on the notion that everyone has a content management problem.

John Powell
John Powell

NEWTON, Mass. -- The phrase "content management" tends to conjure images of harried webmasters scrambling to publish company documents and information on the Internet. But true "enterprise" content management goes far beyond the Web, said John Powell, CEO of open source content management startup Alfresco.

True enterprise content management, Powell said, involves managing everything from photos and videos to case notes and work orders.

The U.K.-based Alfresco yesterday kicked off the Open Source Business Conference by unveiling the first production release of its open source enterprise content management software. And Powell is hoping that his firm's all-encompassing approach to content management -- along with the low cost of open source software -- will be enough to help his company gain market share in the face of stiff proprietary competition.

Powell, who served for 10 years as CEO of Business Objects, created Alfresco in late 2004 along with John Newton, the well-known founder of Documentum, an early content management company later acquired by EMC. caught up with Powell to find out just how a scrappy open source startup like Alfresco intends to make waves in a market characterized by well-entrenched proprietary vendors.

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Why did Alfresco choose to be an open source company?

John Powell: The key problem that you have in the U.K. is access to the U.S. market. Open source enabled us to have our product distributed far and wide, and it also gives us an ability to relate to the customer that no other closed source company can achieve.

How big is Alfresco's community of code contributors? How have they added to the product thus far?

Powell: We have built a community. There are about 400 people now contributing in the forums and so forth, and we've had quite a lot of good contributions.

That's very good because content management is a bit like boiling the ocean. For example, we have people in hospitals and they've got complex X-ray machines and they've got doctors who go out with their personal cameras and take photos of accidents and stuff. All of that type of imagery, documents, case notes and all that sort of stuff needs to be content managed.

What the community enables us to do is focus on the core of content management -- the versioning, security, backup and recovery, etc. -- and the community can say, 'Well let's take this now and we'll drop into it a scanning interface or a translation capability or a summarization capability.' [The community adds] all this stuff that we would eventually get to, but it would take us years to get there.

What types of companies are interested -- or do you expect to be interested -- in open source content management?

Powell: When Documentum started, basically you had to be more than $2 billion in revenue to have a content management problem. But today I think that virtually any company has a content management problem. You have a content management problem.

But up until now, if you wanted to buy Documentum, you had to have a quarter of a million bucks pretty much to get to the table. That entry price really limited the people who could use content management. What we've done with Alfresco is dramatically changed that price point because we think the market is much, much bigger than just $2 billion companies. We think that everybody could use that. Our goal is to provide the functionality that everybody needs at a price point that is affordable, and therefore have a much bigger market share.

Who's taking it on board at the moment?

Powell: We've got companies of two or three people, we've got companies of a couple of hundred employees, and we've got companies with 50,000 employees.

How fully featured is the Alfresco software? What standards does it support?

Powell: It allows you to manage any type of content. It supports a wide variety of standard interfaces and a number of interfaces that -- although they're standard -- most of the content vendors don't support. For example, we support WebDAV.

We also support a thing called [Common Internet File System], which is the Microsoft file protocol. That means that you could [be creating a Microsoft Word document] and it can be saved into an Alfresco repository without you even knowing about it. It also means that you get all the benefits of content management without having to do the work, because when you save a file to Alfresco, [the system] can immediately start a workflow on it, can translate it, render that into a Web page -- all of that can be done automatically.

The big names in content management like EMC are very well entrenched in the marketplace. What are some of the challenges an open source company faces in trying to make a name for itself in that environment?

Powell: I think the challenges to some extent are around educating the customer to buy in a different way. That's the open source industry's biggest challenge -- changing the buying behavior of big corporations. It's obviously in that big corporation's benefit to change that behavior because it's incredibly costly today. [Selling customers on the open source model] is a bit like saying to a shopper, you don't have to go to someone and explain what you want. You can just go and pick it up off the shelf yourself.

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