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Content management software is hip, but is it more than document management with a fancy handle?

The technoloty industry is a lot like high school. It's full of cliques and it's highly susceptible to trends. When a new tool catches people's attention, it gets to hang out with the popular crowd and bask in the new-found glory, though eventually the buzz dies down and another hot technology comes along.

But for now, Web content management (CM) is that cool tool. The attraction is obvious: IT managers would love a simple way to control the thousands of pages on their Web sites. Unfortunately, finding tools that claim to handle content management is far easier than getting a clear definition of what CM should actually do. Every vendor with a search engine or a database claims to offer content management, though many are really knowledge management or document management tools hidden under a new name . If you're trying to find an honest to goodness content management tool, sorting through the options can be very confusing.

Ideally, Web content management should be the process of tracking and managing a document end-to-end, from creation to copyediting to Web posting and, finally, to the archive. Better tools also provide more than just tracking; they offer collaborative authoring so that a group can work on a document in an efficient manner that avoids hazards such as the game of "who's got the latest version?"

However, few content management vendors define their products so clearly, leading to further confusion, says Connie Moore, a vice president with the Giga Information Group (US). "The term content management is ambiguous, and a lot of vendors have latched on to it," she says.

Confusion aside, there's no denying that content management is huge. The CM market will grow from $US3.5 billion in 2001 to $US7 billion by 2006, says Ovum, a UK-based consultancy. That growth potential attracted hoards of potential players, but now the industry faces a shakeout. When the economy changed from bull to bear, the bevy of small vendors offering content management tools decreased. And while market giants such as Broadvision, Documentum, Interwoven and Vignette remain, others do not. CM vendor eBusiness Technologies, for instance, has failed. Still others succumbed to consolidation. For example, late last year enterprise software maker Divine purchased ePrise and OpenMarket, two content management vendors that were suffering from financial difficulties.

And while the start-ups floundered and merged, the larger infrastructure vendors such as IBM, Oracle and Microsoft began to enter the market. In May, Microsoft acquired Ncompass Solutions, another small CM provider, and released the developer version of the Microsoft Content Management Server in August. IBM has the Content Manager portfolio, which is bolstered by partnerships with Interwoven and the former OpenMarket. And in July, Oracle unveiled its Collaborative Content Management Service, which ties in to the company's 9i database and application server.

Drawing a Line

Even with a definition of content management at hand, separating a content management tool from a traditional document management tool, which lets users manage electronic documents, can be sticky. Web content management is expanding to include managing enterprise documents, says Nicholas Wilkoff, an analyst with Forrester Research.

"The challenge lies in the fact that the line between managing enterprise content and Web content is becoming more fuzzy," Wilkoff says. "It's no longer strictly about Web content - it's just as much about managing users who are involved in the content process as it is about managing the content."

There are, however, specific features that a true content management tool must have to fit the definition, Wilkoff says. These include strong repository management for storing meta-data (such as indexes and fields) and managing users' interactions with the stored content through library services and workflows and delegated administrative capabilities for distributing and managing roles and responsibilities across business units. The core of a content management tool is the workflow process. When a user creates a document, it goes from the author to the editor to the Web developer. The workflow function follows the document through this process to ensure the content is accurate, reviewed and ready to be formatted and published.

It's also important for vendors to provide features such as authoring, template creation, personalisation and delivery, Wilkoff says, and to support Java and XML for ease of integration.

Decision Time

All these factors play a part when a CIO makes a decision to go with a certain product, particularly now that there's a choice between smaller niche vendors and big infrastructure providers. Small companies usually offer more customised support than giants such as IBM, but the large companies offer a sense of security in the current economic crunch.

When Alex Spinelli, CTO and vice president of digital media technology at Comedy Central, decided to look for a CM tool, he knew he needed a product that would allow the New York City-based company's content to become both a digital and an interactive commodity.

"We needed a system and an architecture that would support all the product descriptions, syndication techniques and articles, and let us imbed and track and target content from all the shows," Spinelli says. "We wanted a single area to store and manage content so that anyone, from marketing and sales to editorial, could access the content."

He ended up choosing a smaller vendor, Interwoven, instead of an infrastructure company. One of the main reasons for his decision was the fact that Interwoven focused primarily on CM, not on numerous other applications. "The more time you spend on something, the better you get at it, and Interwoven had been doing CM for a while," says Spinelli.

The smaller company also offered more focused customer service and the opportunity to help guide the direction of the product. "We get to beta test and have our developers working on it," Spinelli says. "A larger company wouldn't let me do that."

Spinelli admits that the industry consolidation is a concern, and he says it's imperative to examine the track record of any company whose product you buy. "If it's a strong product or a company with solid financials and expertise, the product will continue [even if the company is bought]," he says.

For Jamie Mangrum, manager of enterprise and Web services for the state of California's department of general services, market volatility was a major concern. Mangrum had to support 50,000 pages on the state Web site, and as a public sector manager he didn't have the budget to gamble on products that might go out of business in a few years. He needed a product that would be around in the long term and free the IT department from having to hand code the content that appeared on the site.

While vetting vendors, Mangrum came up with a short list of serious contenders that included Ncompass and ePrise. The latter's financial problems quickly knocked them out of the running. Right when he was about to go with Ncompass, the company was bought by Microsoft. The acquisition made his choice a lot easier, Mangrum says.

"I knew the product would be here two years from now, so I could stop worrying about its longevity and focus on integrating the product with our system," he says. "I knew it was stable and would meet our needs."

Whither from Here?

The definition of content management remains a running target - one that isn't likely to slow down anytime soon. Giga's Moore sees the field moving toward enterprise content management, which would encompass document imaging systems, rich media, Web content and software configuration management. But as the number of electronic documents continues to explode, content management by any description will become an increasingly important IT tool. VManagement by Any Other Name?

Tools are starting to lead double lives

Traditionally, document management has been about managing offline documents, such as purchase orders or benefits forms. Content management tools, on the other hand, grew up around managing Web sites and the thousands - or even millions - of pages they can contain. To facilitate workflow, most document management systems revolve around a centralised storage area that allows for distributed editing and authoring. As it happens, that's also the basis for most content management systems - and the similarity is one reason the line between the two markets is growing fuzzier by the day.

Both types of tools also manage lots of pages and their elements (such as images and meta-data) have version control to keep new files from being overwritten and to allow users to access and retrieve documents. Since most document management systems shared core processes with content management, some document management vendors, such as Documentum and FileNet, were quick to seize the opportunity. They tailored their tools for Web-based content delivery by adding customer personalisation capabilities and a Web front end.

The merging process has even let some CIOs avoid the whole definition debate and simply use the terms and tools interchangeably. Dave Bush, CIO of Atlanta-based transportation fleet services company LeasePlan, for instance, uses IBM's Content Manager Portfolio to manage the huge volume of documents associated with leasing vehicles. But while the tool has Web management features (and Bush does use it to post some documents online), the product's document control features are the key. "We're really in the paper management business," Bush says.

Though the two terms may seem synonymous, a line between document management and content management still does exist. Even with Web content delivery capabilities, document management systems generally succeed only in putting document management online, but many don't let users focus on site management or Web publishing. For now, "document management is a subset of enterprise content management," says Connie Moore, a vice president with the Giga Information Group (US). But as content management moves toward embracing enterprisewide content, including paper documents, which term you use could become moot.

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More about Department of General ServicesDocumentumeBusiness TechnologiesEpriseForrester ResearchGiga Information GroupIBM AustraliaInterwovenLeaseplanMedia TechnologyMicrosoftOvumTransportationVignette

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