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Open source ECM platforms bring mobility to market

This article appears in the issue March 2010 (100 Companies) [Volume 19, Issue 3]
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By the end of 2011, nearly 75 percent of the U.S. work force will be mobile, according to IDC. Improved network technology such as G4 and an increasing number of public Wi-Fi hot spots will support better access to remote data from Web sites and enterprise content management (ECM) systems. The proliferation of smartphones will contribute to greater access (see sidebar following article), and the emergence of a generation of workers who are accustomed to being connected will fuel the trend toward mobile applications.

To realize the potential of remote access to ECM, developers must design effective interfaces to applications that are responsive to the needs of workers on the go. “This market is still in its early stages,” says Jarrod Gingras, an analyst with CMS Watch, a buyer’s advocate for organizations considering investing in content technologies. “Usability is going to be a bigger challenge than technology.”

Mobile platform applications

Gingras mentions several functions that lend themselves to small screens: approving or rejecting an item in a workflow, filling out a brief form or viewing a small but relevant portion of a diagram. “Presentation of the information is the key to making these applications workable,” he says.

Zia Consulting extends and supports ECM applications and has frequently used Alfresco, an open source ECM product, for client applications. The company keeps its own content in an Alfresco repository as well, and wanted to be able to connect to it via smartphones. “We use an Alfresco solution that’s in the cloud, which is very convenient,” says Mike Mahon, president of Zia Consulting, “but we did not want to rely solely on laptops for connectivity when we were on the road. In addition, we wanted to give something back to the Alfresco community. So we decided to develop an app, Fresh Docs for Alfresco, for mobile platforms so that users could access content in Alfresco repositories.”

Proprietary and open source

Zia’s programmers wrote and tested code for both the Apple iPhone and Google’s Android operating system. “Since the iPhone is a proprietary platform and Alfresco is open source code, it took some work to validate and publish the app,” Mahon says. “Apple is very meticulous in the screen functionality, which is part of its branding. We also developed an Android version, which was much easier since Android is open source.” The application was released in the last quarter of 2009, and each is available free on the Apple App Store and Android Market respectively.

The mobile application works on all versions of Alfresco and uses standard APIs so that no configuration is required. It complies with the new Content Management Interoperability Services (CMIS) standard proposed by a group of leading content management vendors. Administered by the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS), CMIS allows content to be exchanged among different repositories.

Law firm’s approach

The combination of a low-cost app and an open source repository puts mobile access within reach of nearly any organization. Brooke and Brooke Attorneys at Law, a small law firm, uses the community edition of Alfresco and Fresh Docs, the mobile app developed by Zia. “We use the Alfresco repository to hold information that is not directly client-related,” says attorney Tom Brooke, “such as court memos, fee schedules and other similar items. If the district attorney produces a new memo, we scan it into Alfresco, and it is available on the iPhone.”

Because of the small screen, mobile ECM should be more task-oriented than the desktop versions. “In a small interface, you need to take the burden off the user,” says John Newton, CTO and chairman of Alfresco. “For example, you might be able to access a set of engineering charts specifically for your location rather than having to search the repository.” He references a town in England that provides drawings for its street engineers, and case notes for social workers so they can access critical content while on the go. “Each mobile application is very specific, such as a defined workflow for a document to be signed off,” he says,” rather than presenting full functionality on the small screen.”

ECM solutions are increasingly becoming platforms rather than applications, according to Newton. “No one company can provide all solutions out of the box,” he explains. “With standards in place, it is much easier to build new and innovative apps like mobile capability.” The connections that allow publishing from IBM’s social software (including Lotus Quickr, Lotus Notes and Lotus Connections) to Alfresco provide additional examples of that flexibility.

Open source collaboration goes mobile

MindTouch offers a line of open source business platforms that include enterprise-class wikis and collaborative portals, along with connectors to databases, customer relationship management (CRM) systems and other applications. The company provides a mobile interface as part of each version of its MindTouch platform. “The mobile interface is very task-oriented,” says Aaron Fulkerson, founder and CEO of MindTouch. “It has a slimmed-down functionality that allows users to consume and annotate content; it is not geared toward content creation.”

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