Until recently, the most recognized name in the software industry had been noticeably absent from the ECM marketplace. That was until September of last year when Microsoft announced an ECM strategy that would integrate basic content services with the forthcoming release of Office 2007. The platform for Microsoft’s ECM offering is Windows SharePoint Services. SharePoint provides a common framework for document management and collaboration, as well as a single repository for storing documents of all types, including Web pages and forms. Common ECM components, such as document workflow, records management, and Web content management, will be provided as part of this platform and will be designed to seamlessly interoperate with Microsoft Office applications. Ever since this strategy was unveiled, Microsoft’s presence in the ECM space has been unmistakable. Several independent ECM vendors have since scrambled to establish deeper partnerships with the company. Microsoft also invested in a platinum sponsorship for this year’s premier ECM trade show, AIIM Expo, as if to force the industry to stand up and take notice of its arrival.
Microsoft’s interest and investments in the ECM space are definitely further evidence of a market going mainstream. However, it is unclear as of yet exactly how Microsoft’s ECM offering will affect future content management buying decisions and the landscape of the industry. Obviously, Microsoft’s name recognition and prevalence in existing corporate IT infrastructures provide the company with several advantages. These advantages may cause several SMBs considering an ECM deployment to hold off on a technology purchase because of the promise of less expensive content management services inbuilt as part of their Microsoft operating system. While these services are on the horizon, waiting on Microsoft can come with a price. First, Microsoft’s initial ECM offering will provide only the most basic content management functionalities and must evolve significantly to compete with the robustness of more mature ECM platforms. It is unlikely that Microsoft will be able to immediately address some of the more complex ECM issues many organizations face today. Furthermore, based on Microsoft’s track record with new releases, the company’s ECM platform will likely undergo a number of architectural revisions and upgrades in its early versions. It may take a few years before all the bugs are worked out of Microsoft’s ECM solution, presenting the risk of early instability with the platform. Finally, the cost of upgrading to Office 2007 and Microsoft Vista in order to use the vendor’s new ECM features is also something to consider. Given these variables, if your organization has a content management problem that needs to be addressed in the short term, you should look to one of the more established ECM suites on the market rather than waiting for Microsoft to perfect its offering.
That being said, Microsoft’s ECM strategy definitely puts the company on track to becoming a dominant force in the ECM industry. I expect Microsoft to significantly build upon and evolve its ECM offering over the next few years through internal development as well as vendor partnerships and acquisitions — further feeding the consolidation trend that has run rampant in the ECM industry recently. I also believe Microsoft’s appeal to the SMB market will eventually position the vendor as one of the major outlets for complete horizontal content management services in the general business community. The elevation of Microsoft and others in content management circles will cause many of the current leading ECM suites to shift their focuses to specific vertical market and line-of-business needs as a way to differentiate themselves and protect their market share. Lastly, Microsoft’s model of engraining ECM into Office 2007 will expose many new businesses to the benefits of ECM, bringing the technology a step closer to realizing its place as an integral part of the IT infrastructure for every organization.