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North Plains ConnectR – The Integrated Future Of DAM In 2013 And Beyond?

by Ralph Windsor on January 2, 2013

Last month, Print Week  had an interview with North Plains CEO, James Christopher where he outlines their vision for DAM and how they plan to utilise each of the three DAM technologies they now own having acquired both Xinet and Vyre last year.  Normally, CEO ‘vision’ pieces are fairly turgid affairs where the boss yawns on for a few paragraphs using a form of pseudo-academic business Newspeak that seems like it was invented to generate copy but without saying much.  In this interview that has been kept to a minimum and there are some pointers which might be useful for others in the DAM industry to think about.

The more interesting aspect of the interview was the section on North Plains’ ‘ConnectR’ integration layer:

This has led to the development of ConnectR, a so-called interoperability layer that aims to make it easier for different locally installed and cloud-based DAM platforms to share assets, thereby doing away with time-consuming and potentially costly configuration of multiple pieces of software…”Vyre products can be configured to work with Telescope or Xinet today but what we’re talking about is adding product functionality that does that as a feature as opposed to a configuration. All these products can work together and they do work together in customer environments but it just takes too much configuration to get them there – we’d like to make it smoother,” explained Christopher.” [Read More]

Among my colleagues here at DAM News, there is more than a bit of cynicism regarding whether or not this transaction is really going to be any different to the usual corporate imperialism you tend to get with tech acquisitions where the conquering power takes over, fires everyone and erects a new sign outside the offices of their defeated foes to ensure everyone in the market knows who is now in charge.  Reading this interview and looking at what they are actually doing, however, leads me to believe that they could be playing this a little smarter than they might have been given credit for by some.  There are several internal DAM market factors and some external ones that suggest something more significant might be in prospect.

Firstly, James Christopher’s background is not in Digital Asset Management, he has lead a number of other technology firms including Silicon Graphics and Alias.  DAM is still a fairly insular market with many vendor CEOs having seen the industry go through multiple repeating cycles over a period of a decade or more – with only the latest boom really looking like it might have the momentum to propel the sector out of the production niches that it was historically associated with.  North Plains have some cash behind them provided by the venture capital group Accel-KKR.  While they are certainly not the only vendor to have third party funding now, looking at Accel-KKR’s other investments, it’s pretty clear their agenda is going to be oriented around what makes the most money rather than pandering to any world domination fantasies that the incumbent board might hold.

As demonstrated by the HP/Autonomy acquisition recriminations at the end of 2012, there is a change taking place in the way tech acquisitions are being managed.  Rather than old-fashioned monolithic mega-corporations where a centralised power base ‘invades’ the competition so they can pillage their customers plus any other assets worth owning, an alternative approach which appears to be gaining traction seems to be to retain the existing businesses as separate entities but selectively integrate them on a case-by-case basis.  I can’t claim to be much of an expert at corporate finance, so the closest comparison I can think of is they way Getty Images successfully bought up large swathes of the stock media industry 10-12 years ago.  They retained many of the brands but removed some duplicated costs where it was prudent to do so and the template for this acquisition looks closer to that in both style and approach.

Where the business element segues back into the technical/product concern is with this quote from the previously referred to article:

So we believe in best of breed solutions but with ConnectR connecting those solutions together and also with third parties. The first version of ConnectR is only Xinet to Telescope but as a future roadmap it is our intention to connect other modules, whether it is our own product or third party, using that technology.” [Read More]

Like a lot of people from a technology background, ‘best of breed’ isn’t exactly a confidence inspiring description and often means ‘bag of bits which doesn’t work together’.  In this case, however, I can see where they are coming from and how the business and technology strategy might dovetail successfully (for a change).

In 2013, the Digital Asset Management market is characterised by highly fragmented product offers.  As described in the article above, Xinet and North Plains products are markedly different from each other and Vyre is unique again – each has a piece of what end users want, but not all of it.  Even if you have all three, there are still going to be other areas that they don’t cover.  The wide diversity of functional needs is probably what sustains so many players in this sector and why anyone planning to corner it completely has a tough job on their hands.

Those who have been involved in either assembling DAM system requirements for purchasing exercises, or responding to RFPs will be well aware that the end user requirements are bursting at the seams.  The range and scope of what end users want to do is taking solutions outside areas where many vendors would probably want to go, given the choice.  Unlike a simpler application, for example, a spreadsheet package, if you ask 50 different people what they think a DAM system means, you’ll get 50 different answers and lots of debate and discussion when it comes to organising the feature priorities.

There are some common abstract functions like ‘search’ or ‘upload’, but even the most basic products can usually deal with that now and it’s not really where the action is for most end users as DAM solutions mature.  It’s the ‘management’ part of DAM where the functional requirements are expanding at an exponential rate.  In addition to functionality within the DAM system itself, developments like social media are bringing new demands for workflows, approval and auditing and that’s just one example.  No single vendor is realistically going to be able to provide all of this in a way that is effective across the whole functional spectrum.  Even with lots of financial resources available, the implementation logistics would place the resulting product at serious risk of being bloated, unfit for purpose and too complicated to maintain long-term.

Taken in this context, it’s easier to see what North Plains are aiming to do.  The phrase ‘our own product or third party’ in the quote above suggests that this is a standard they might plan to open up for others to use.  Rather than who they might (or might not) own now, it’s the ConnectR interoperability layer where they could capitalise on their position in DAM.  Integration is likely to be a key DAM battleground as it offers some practical solutions to these ever-expanding user requirements which are increasingly unlikely to to be completely addressed via a single product.

We have talked before on DAM News about what a unified application platform with a common protocol might look like and how that is likely to be the only practical way that the vast and ever-expanding range of end user requirements stands any chance of being met.  North Plains certainly have the financial scale and industry clout to make ConnectR become the dominant integration protocol in DAM, the question is whether they both want to and can persuade enough of their other DAM industry counterparts to adopt it so it becomes something more than just a way to send data between their own proprietary applications.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Naresh Sarwan January 2, 2013 at 9:41 pm

Ralph,

This is an interesting counterpoint to my less favourable take on the NP/Vyre deal, but I’m not sure really how different this is to any other corporate tech deal – although I accept your point that they might pause before killing off their freshly acquired brands.

I’m generally wary of vendor PR and you need to look closely at what they do rather than what they say. It will need a few months before we’ll see what the shakeout is in terms of staff and customers.

On your last point, apart from a few vendors wanting NP to come along and buy them up, I can’t see how many will be willing to fall in line and agree to sign up to ConnectR. The larger competitors will all likely respond with their own protocols and the smaller ones won’t be sufficient to gain momentum. Some third party (non-DAM) providers might be interested, but they won’t have the luxury of dealing only with ConnectR – although having one protocol to cover 3 different products will make the ConnectR option more appealing in cost terms.

There many industry standards in play now, like CMIS and oData which we have both discussed. None of those has yet acquired real momentum in DAM either, I don’t think this will be any different. I would agree that it might point to the direction for a DAM integration protocol eventually though. If nothing else, it might persuade lots of people to start to think more deeply about this whole area as it is essential for DAM to progress and I concur with your point about bloated applications and the exponential growth in functional requirements.

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