A while back Frank Gilbane and I were talking. One of the outcomes of our chat was that he graciously asked me to be a Guest Author for the Gilbane Report Blog. This is my first foray for Frank’s blogosphere, and I’m grateful for the opportunity. With that….

Recently closing on Oracle’s acquisition of the company I founded (www.contextmedia.com), and having lived in what we considered the “unstructured” data market for ECI/EII for over six years, presents a chance to look back, and perhaps, at what lies ahead.

Where we’ve been- Sowing the seeds for ECI
The gestation for Context Media as a concept and idea began with my tenure at Netscape. The first company I founded, InSoft, was acquired by Netscape in late ’95 and provided a multimedia and realtime collaborative footing for the company with products and standards (LiveMedia, LiveAudio, LiveVideo, Media Server, Conference), 1st Shared Whiteboard, H.323, and RTSP for streaming). Those years, now ten short years ago, saw the exponential growth of “content.” Information heretofore inaccessible became as simple to access as clicking on an URL and experiencing instantaneous gratification. It is no wonder that Netscape set the bar and the table for the years to come.

Remember “information wants to be free ?” And even with the mis-guided notion that copyrighted material should all be free and readily accessible, it is critical to remember what is was like to be able to search and find information immediately, particularly knowledge that was domain specific to you and your job ? This “high value” content was previously locked in its own proprietary silo.

What was that ? Well, considering that even the Document Management sector was not yet a big market, it typically meant that the silo was a file server somewhere in your company. Web serving and HTTP made it relatively simple to “HTML-ize” this kind of data and make it available. Old geeks like myself who were used to authoring in nroff/troff and interconnecting file systems with NFS mounts began to see the light with HTML. In house file servers with NFS mounts interconnecting them were the norm. That was considered early stage collaboration. This state of sharing which at the time felt cool and leading edge was rendered obsolete almost overnite by the web. The web became the new lingua franca. Hacking the UNIX /etc/hosts became a thing of the past. The web server opened the world of content.

It was cool, and then, what happened ? It was just like any wild great party or event. Often times, the best party you ever attended was secret, it was in the woods, or on an island in the Caribbean (now everyone knows about Foxy’s for New Years on Jost van Dyke…), etc. Then, everyone found out about it, and, POW, chaos. The thing about this kind of chaos was that it didn’t go away. There was so much pent up demand for “ease of access” that it continued to drive more and more chaos in the enterprise. But… business is not a party (although it felt like it at Netscape from ’95-’97). Further, chaos is really not appropriate for creating and sustaining shareholder value.

That’s what happened to the web. So, (at least in my view, and the now archived view of Context Media), this chaos in the enterprise demanded “order.” Thus, the setting of the table for the massive growth in content management, and it’s upscale big brother, enterprise content management. These players brought order back to the chaos. Early document management players, i.e., Documentum, morphed into what we now call ECM. The pendulum swung back and put us right where we were pre-web. You could now get access, you just had to pay the licensing toll to get at your data. Of course, workflow was the raison d’etre for ECM positioning. My experience in every large organization I’ve worked at was that real users hated workflow. People like to define their processes, not the other way around. Nevertheless, the over-correction in ECM “order re-establishment” did the job. You may not have liked it, it may have cost too much, but at the end of the day, businesses want order. They got it !

This was exactly Context Media’s reason for being. Our DNA, having gestated at Netscape really didn’t place “order” ahead of access. We wanted open access and the rush of instantaneous gratification. Yet, in being the FIRST web-based enterprise software company, we knew that introducing enterprise webservers into a business with a derivative unforeseen by-product of “chaos” was not going to win the day. You needed to have order WITH access. Perhaps that would keep the buzz going. With that, we woodshedded and ultimately launched Context Media. We thought that ECI would keep the goodness of ECM (order) and bring back the lovefest of the web (access). That was our mission.

The six years of Context Media introduced the “Unified View,” something we rolled out and demoed to key analysts such as Frank Gilbane, Connie Moore, Sue Feldman, and many other analysts in mid 2001. Our vision, using web services as a loosely coupled asyncronous construct (later coined an SOA by tech pundits), ultimately provided what we called “pipelines” that interfaced to other ECM systems, proprietary systems and databases. The architecture of these pipelines was fundamentally different from other “connector-based” approaches. Ours were plug and play, off-the-shelf WSDL based services that interconnected radically different systems. The “Unified View” brought back the use of the browser as your core navigator, again allowing you to peer into all content, even if you didn’t hold the secret handshake card to use the high cost per seat ECM system. We coined it “InterShare.” Our vision was realized. Technically, at least…

Where we are- circa 2005-2006
For Context Media, the culmination of our vision, engineering and market development efforts ultimately resulted in Oracle’s acquistion of our company.

What’s it mean for them ? Context Media’s technology now forms the basis for Oracle’s Enterprise Content Integration (ECI) strategy, and is a foundational element embedded across multiple product lines: the Oracle Collaboration Suite, and Oracle Fusion Middleware. This newly acquired ECI technology from Context Media will also manfiest itself in other key Oracle apps and strategies, e.g., Oracle Enterprise search, and Oracle Data Hubs.

We weren’t the only ECI players to be rolled into a gorilla’s M&A strategy. It’s interesting that the two then-acknowledged leaders in ECI were both acquired by leading database players. Context Media —> Oracle, and, Venetica — >IBM. Another observation is that these acquisitions were perhaps the right fit(s) for both Oracle and IBM. Context Media’s roots were in hardcore software tools and applications development. We were acquired by a company that stresses engineering and products as key differentiators versus a heavy services-laden approach. Venetica, a company that had been around for years building experience as an IT professional services vendor building “connectors” between banking systems in Charlotte, went to IBM, where the 5X to 7X services revenue model is increasingly important, e.g., recent IBM financials show that services drive approx. 60% of revenue. Thus, a case can be made that in the realm of technical DNA matching, these outcomes were reasonable.

But now….Where’s it going ?
Why didn’t this technology ultimately become OEM’ed and/or acquired by a leading, or combination of leading traditional leading ECM players ? Both Context Media and Venetica had OEM traction, but no player had a key lead. Is the ECM market’s ultimate competition the database gorillas ? Is it that the established ECM base needs to entrench and protect their hill from the DB players approaching from the sea ? Is ECM really just a subset of the database wars ? A mere “feature” in the gargantuan stack ? Will we all ultimately wind up playing not necessarily on a web-based platform, but one that has been underlaid and hijacked by database kingpins- IBM, Oracle, MSFT ?

Next, is this a grand opportunity for guerilla warfare from startups wielding XML, RDF, atom, and open source EWMD (Enterprise weapons of mass destruction) ? Has the CLOB become the BLOB, weighted down by multi terabyte databases that are just too costly to run ? Is there a reason that, arguably, the world’s largest “database,” the Google File System (GFS) is not based on leading gorillas database technology ?

In a broader sense- Is the consolidation in the software industry killing innovation ? Are all innovative enterprise software startups destined for either (a) flameout, or (b) acquisition by monoliths like Oracle/IBM/Microsoft ? Did ECI technology, that which was invented to connect, interlink and provide a more universal access layer for end users actually hasten the advance of the database players dominance of all things data ? In the end, even large(r) public ECM companies look for the investor exit. Perhaps the consolidation of our industry’s enterprise software sector is well underway. The signs are everywhere.

Finally, what’s it mean for the people that matter, the customers ? Do they really believe that they’ll get more/better/faster when buying from any of the remaining 3-4 players left standing ? Is there a way to do M&A that keeps what Tracy Kidder called “The Soul of the Machine” in the enterprise software machine ? Or, is the enterprise software machine, like the carbon fuel-based automobile, destined to be replaced by something new and better ? Perhaps that’s the topic for another blog….

Dan Harple