Wednesday, May 28, 2008

SIIA NetGain 2008: The Intersection of Content and Software Seeks Greater Value

As a company that has as its tagline "Where Content, Technology and People Meet" Shore can only applaud the SIIA's decision to combine sessions for software and content professionals at its annual West Coast conference into one event this year, now dubbed NetGain. Seeing companies like Salesforce.com and Deloitte Consulting in one set of rooms and companies like LexisNexis and Wolters Kluwer in another room at this conference always seemed like a huge lost opportunity, only the moreso as Software as a Service begins to transform the face of enterprise I.T. services and content providers move more towards workflow applications and content integration technologies to build their market value. At the same time services like Google have long demonstrated that a technology that provides highly valuable context for content can be a publishing platform unto itself. So in many ways the software industry and the content industry are chasing the same high-value market opportunities and need to recognize that they have to speak in the same forums together for enterprise markets as much as for media markets.

I did not live-blog this conference, in part to participate in the SIIA's experiment in using Twitter to cover the event (see LiveTwitter's events page and look for NetGain updates). Larry Schwartz, President of Newstex, LLC, provided a consolidated collection of people's Twitter messages here for those wanting a more blow-by-blow account of the proceedings. I also posted earlier a piece reviewing presentations by Salesforce.com and Google that underscored the importance of "cloud computing" in delivering enterprise content services.

On one level NetGain was such a perfectly natural blend of conference attendees from the SIIA Content and Software divisions that one wonders why this wasn't done earlier. This was underscored by the similar product themes brought out in the conference sessions. When software providers talked about "Software as a Service," what it really seems to say in many ways is that software companies are not succeeding as much as they used to simply by licensing their software as intellectual property and need to adopt licensing models more akin to those used for many years by enterprise subscription database services. When content providers talked about the importance of "workflow applications," What they seemed to be saying was that they cannot survive just on licensing intellectual property that gets commoditized unless it's put to work through really useful software services. Either way both software publishers and content publishers are chasing the same value proposition in the enterprise increasingly.

And for that matter, how different is "cloud computing" from the decades-old content services provided in the financial services industry by securities exchanges and companies like Thomson Reuters and Bloomberg? Certainly the Web has accelerated the development of client-server content services beyond any scale of earlier enterprise services but at the end of the day software and content services have been in a merging industry for a long time. Alacra, which won a CODiE award at NetGain for its ability to integrate content into enterprise workflows, has been working diligently for more than a decade on its powerful AlacraBook content integration services. Eventually trends catch up with long-established realities, I suppose.

The big difference today seems to be the influence of the one key ingredient that was somewhat under-represented at NetGain: social media services. Clay Shirky delivered his usual great speech about how social media services are revolutionizing publishing and ecommerce and there was a very good panel discussion lead by Dave McClure, but the increasing preponderance of social media publishing services both outside and inside major enterprises just didn't seem to register with most of the NetGain attendees. We're moving rapidly towards a predominant publishing environment in which the audience is seeking out and defining the value that it needs from content far more rapidly than traditional I.T. and publishing services are defining it.

This raises the question: what is the platform for today's and tomorrow's publishers? Certainly Salesforce.com and Google, along with other presenters, raised a compelling case for the applications programming interface, or API, being the platform of choice for the forseeable future. Being able to plug in content and functionality into one or more platforms via APIs enables people with both content and technology services to put their capabilities into the contexts that audiences value most very rapidly. Certainly the flourishing success of Facebook's APIs has helped to fuel its growth even as Google's OpenSocial API promises to bring content into social media contexts more universally. If a platform does not have the ability for content and functionality to grow through the efforts of third parties then it's going to be hard to fuel growth efficiently.

But the real platform of today and tomorrow is the community built around a platform. Bloomberg and Reuters proved this out years ago as their messaging and conversational dealing services enabled securities market traders to communicate with one another more efficiently and to contribute valuable content that resulted in the execution of securities trades. While much of the financial industry's technology and content services have shifted towards more automated functionality, the heart of what provides the firms using these services with a market advantage is the ability of people to collaborate in marketplaces through publishing. Today a new generation of business information services is emerging, highlighted at NetGain by Hoover's and ECNext, both of which are focusing on how to lock in content value through their audiences providing valuable content in the context of their platforms. A publishing community is a community that can become the heart of any platform's value. Looking at how Salesforce.com itself is moving towards integrating social media functionality this concept is hardly a secret.

There were also a lot of interesting exhibits by CODiE candidates at NetGain, which allowed people to get more "hands on" with their products before voting - sometimes literally. I especially enjoyed J.J. Keller's Safe.Sim truck driving simulator, which although it did not win in its CODiE category was both a very powerful training and evaluation tool as well as a "sleeper" software hit. With a little bit of repackaging and some consumer marketing know-how this could be a huge software hit. Truckers and truck fans around the nation and no doubt worldwide would jump at the opportunity to have a multi-player online version of this, complete with their own customizations. As for me, well, I guess I have a few things to learn about backing a semi into a loading dock.

In the paid exhibitors area I was especially impressed by a couple of offerings. Mzinga is an OEM social media community development service for both enterprise and consumer markets, enabling the collection and sharing of valuable content that builds value inside and outside the firewall. Well worth a look if you're considering stepping into social media more deeply. Vitrium Systems enables PDFs to be turned into intelligent content payloads that track audience behavior without requiring plug-ins or downloads and can also provide DRM for PDF content. For those still emphasizing print-formatted content this is an interesting play, especially for those interested in getting more play out if eBook content.

On the SIIA Previews agenda two later presentations stood out clearly. Watch Zuora, a company that promises to enable subscription models for practically everything, including content and technology to be sure but also just about any business model for any fungible product or service. Model-wise I think that they're on to something big and I plan to highlight them in future writings. It's a spinoff of ideas from Salesforce.com using telecommunications technology, Keep an eye on this one, it may take a while to take off but I think that it has the potential to hockey-stick.

Another strong Previews offering was SlideRocket, which combines powerful presentation tools, graphics development and community content to create a new way to develop and share presentations that can capture metrics on how people look at them. I think of it being to tools like PowerPoint and Photoshop and Flash what Salesforce.com and Facebook were to enterprise software and online publishing - services that defined their own categories as a new kind of publishing and in the process of doing so redefined several market segments at once by focusing on owning user content. I can't wait to get my hands on the beta.

So it was a great event, though I would hope that next year we get to see more participation both by more West Coast local firms and more major East Coast and overseas publishers. I would say that the only real disappointment that I had from the event was the rather quiet audience, which seemed in many instances to be of the opinion that while things were changing rapidly in the publishing and software industries the changes that many tout as revolutionary are not going to sweep away long-standing business models any time soon. There's more than a small grain of truth in that outlook, of course. Yet looking at the news industry, now reeling from the effects of having largely ignored the need to transform themselves radically in the face of a decade of online publishing, I think that it's safe to say that NetGain represented in many ways the admission that later is sooner than many may think.
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