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The peer-to-peer future of document management

Aimster is not a document management product. It represents, however, the future of document management.

Remember in the late ’80s and early ’90s when document management vendors were singing a song that made perfect sense but turned out to be of not much real appeal? Everyone uses documents, they said. Documents are the lifeblood of business, they said. Organizations waste huge amounts of time trying to find documents, they said. The information locked up in documents is the corporation's greatest squandered resource, they said. Therefore, everyone wants document management, they said. Every sentence was true ... except the last.

No matter how badly document management was needed, it was doomed to failure so long as it continued to think of itself as a database application that required users to lock their documents in a protected vault. Precisely because documents are the "lifeblood" of business, users were unwilling to give up control of them. Worse, mnanaging documents meant adding a layer of red tape--filling out forms, getting permission--with no benefit to the day-to-day work of the user; the benefits were organizational, not individual.

In the early ’90s, some document management vendors figured out that the real driver for the technology was not control over the document construction process but document distribution, also known as publishing. This idea ran counter to the vendors' key assumptions. Document management had been about securing documents against unauthorized changes and access, but now it turned out it was really about making them as widely available as possible. As the vendors were beginning to get their heads around this idea, the Web arrived, blowing away proprietary distribution schemes. Document management returned to the high- end, document-intensive, regulated-industry niche that had spawned it.

Now, along came Napster and peer-to-peer (P2P) computing. Napster, as you'd better know by now, enables 40 million users to access any music files you have in a directory on your hard drive that you designate as available to Napster. Aimster is another P2P application, with two differences. First, it's not aimed at any particular type of file. Second, rather than opening up my desktop directory to millions of strangers, it only makes it available to people on my AOL instant messaging "buddy list."

This does to document development what the Web did to document publishing. Without my having to do any additional work, my buddies can access the documents I'm working on or relying on. So, imagine that I'm part of the new project to decide where in Europe we'll open our next office. I set up a folder on my desktop and tell my P2P DM app to make it available to the other people in the project. I set up subfolders as well. Maybe I tell my P2P app that a particular folder should only be visible to some subset of my project buddies. As I add documents that I want to share (an article on changes to the tax law in Belgium, links to Web sites about the livability of Dutch cities) and documents I'm working on (initial thoughts about why Antwerp is currently my favored city), the P2P app does some document management work: it indexes them, notes new versions, tracks access, builds a browsable "portal," notices similarities to other projects underway across the enterprise, etc. It does this without intruding one whit on my work.

It's not clear to me whether P2P document management will come from the old line document management companies or from the new P2P application vendors like groove.net. Vendors have consistently underestimated the difficulty of building robust document management apps, so it may be hard for a hip-'n'-hot P2P company to succeed, whereas it wouldn't be hard for a project or document management company to add instant messaging and P2P capabilities. On the other hand, the document management companies will be tempted to see P2P as a way to sneak in the sort of over-kill megatonnage that has kept their products off of hundreds of millions of desktops in the first place. Maybe some document management and P2P vendors will combine forces. But, one way or another, P2P will be the future of document management. IMHO.

David Weinberger is editor of Journal of the Hyperlinked Organization.

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