Wednesday, October 11th, 2006
Document Management — or, if you’re charging $400 an hour, Knowledge Management — is the domain of some very expensive software packages, such as OpenText Livelink, Documentum and FileNet. These vendors pack so much meta information into their systems — permissions, audit information, tags, creator, owner, modifier, etc., etc. — that manipulating it all is a usability nightmare. Managing files or groups of files using a series of forms, frames and popups results in a veritable festival of clicking. I know of one instance where a company delegated the reorganization of a tree of resources in Livelink 9.5 to a small army of offshore folks.
It would seem that Ajax is a natural fit for simplifying these interfaces and reducing the number of postbacks and clicks to a manageable few. Unfortunately, the big vendors carry lots of technological baggage and don’t move quickly to embrace new technologies. Ajax for these behemoths is very much a do-it-yourself sort of development endeavor. Fortunately, a small Pennsylvania company called Epiware has developed a Document Management system of the same name that makes heavy use of Ajax. They have just released this formerly commercial system as Open Source.
There are definitely some things to like about Epiware. On the plus side.
- Drag and drop within an explorer-like direct manipulation interface to manage documents.
- Audit trail and document versioning.
- Context sensitive right-click menus.
- Project widgets like calendars, surveys and forums.
- Some workflow around document publishing.
- Has support for multiple languages.
- User and group permissions for various system actions.
On the minus size:
- The user interface isn’t exactly attractive; use of a widget library like Dojo or Rico would have helped here.
- Some of the Ajax features, particularly in the Library view — having to select a file before it can be dragged, the display of a shadow box rather than the file being dragged — are counterintuitive to users of a Windows or Mac desktop.
- Limited support of document types. This is where the big boys make their money. Unless you can view and search 1000+ different file types, you can’t be taken seriously. Only handles the content of Word and PDF files. If you want to search or view other file types without having the application on hand, you’re out of luck.
- Uses Glimpse for indexing documents. Glimpse is supported by a small company in Arizona and is not open source. If you want to use it for anything serious, you’ll likely have to buy a license. Also, Glimpse is not exactly cutting edge anymore as far as fulltext search engines go.
- Scaling and fault tolerance through clustering seems problematic.
- No documentation or help files distributed with the Open Source release. In particular, customizing the system — as invariably happens — to a company’s specific needs isn’t documented or supported.
- Epiware seems to be a small company. Who will support the system going forward? Will a developer community grow up around the system?
While the Ajax interface is leagues better than the competition, the lack of documentation and the limited file type support are enough for me to not consider using Epiware. Ultimately it’s not enough simply to provide a more usable interface by means of Ajax; you have to hit the other letters of the FURPS (Functionality, Usability, Reliability, Performance, Supportability) acronym as well.
Postscript: before anyone points out that Microsoft Sharepoint is less expensive than the big boys and can fit the bill (where’s the Ajax?), I challenge them to actually use Sharepoint for a real life project.
Posted by Dietrich Kappe at 7:00 am