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Northplains NEXT – A Step Forward Or Too Little Too Late?

by Ralph Windsor on June 28, 2017

A couple of weeks ago, Northplains released a new DAM platform called NEXT (not to be confused with similarly named competitor, NetX).  This replaces their Telescope and OnBrand products, the former their original platform first developed 20 or more years ago and the latter dating from their acquisition of UK vendor, Vyre in late 2012.  Here is the quote from their CEO, Hassan Kotob:

Today’s dynamic marketing teams need a collaborative strategy and integrated workflows to effectively manage the countless digital assets that are required for marketing, advertising and branding campaigns.  We developed NorthplainsNEXT to reunite and empower siloed marketing stakeholders to align every content and campaign decision with their specific business goals.” [Read More]

All current buzzwords checked on that soundbite, but does it mean anything?  To evaluate this, it is necessary to consider the historical context into which the new platform is being released.

At one time, Northplains were the pre-eminent enterprise DAM vendor and their name would certainly be in the mix for most medium-large scale organisations who needed a DAM platform.  All has not been well in recent years, however and there have been a number  of senior-level management changes, acquisitions which have not been integrated entirely satisfactorily and other indications that the firm had lost its way.  The question is whether NEXT is a sufficient to enable Northplains to regain their former glory and pose a serious challenge to alternative vendors with enterprise credentials like OpenText, ADAM, Adobe plus a whole slew of others who possess comparable technical ability, even if not the same marketing/PR budget.

From the press release, these are the key points about NEXT:

  • Content lifecycle automation and integration with other marketing technologies.
  • Simplified and customisable workflows that provide a single location for all brand, creative, search, social, content, video and marketing operations work.
  • Connecting C-suite, brand, creative, marketing operations stakeholders for improved and quicker content collaboration and engagement.
  • Rights Management and compliance.
  • Real-time campaign and content tracking.
  • Uploading of raw assets with simplified metadata input.
  • Easy access to all files within Adobe Creative Cloud for all users.

None of this sounds especially ground-breaking; you can get all the above from a wide range of other tools on the market now.  I will acknowledge, however, that this is a new platform so summarising a complex application into a few bullet points is unlikely to leave much scope for specifics. There is a longer video which is a recording of a recent webinar and I will return to this later.

One of the observations made about Telescope, especially, is that it required a considerable amount of configuration and customisation just to get it to work with a corresponding impact on cost (in addition to reliability, based on what a number of their users say).  Around 10-20 years ago, this was how most enterprise software was delivered, the implication being that you had to be an organisation with deep pockets and hence why the term was appropriate.  The distinctions have blurred quite a lot recently, however and this has obliged traditionally enterprise-level providers to step up and demonstrate the value supporting their considerably higher cost-base.  Not all have yet been able to achieve this.

OnBrand (the erstwhile Vyre product) seemed more cohesive and looked like you could start using it (albeit imperfectly) without the same level of professional services effort and expense – although it was still required.  My expectation is that one objective of NEXT is to take the superior usability and marketing focus of OnBrand then combine it with some of the extensive customisation/sophistication that was built for Telescope users over the years.  As I will discuss, however, that is far from a given and if I were a Telescope or OnBrand user, I would want to metaphorically kick the tyres quite a bit before progressing a migration to NEXT.

I note that Xinet is to be left as an independent product and not rolled into NEXT.  Northplains might refer to Xinet as ‘the most powerful Digital Asset Management solution’ and if ‘convoluted’ is your idea of a synonym for ‘powerful’ then they could have a point – although, again, much depends on whether it was configured properly by whoever deployed it.  My suspicion here is that the prospect of having to migrate numerous Xinet installations deployed inside large commercial print houses where it is often used was highly unappealing, especially as a very limited number of the customers would be prepared to cover the cost and take on the risk of moving legacy production systems over to a new platform.  In mitigation, it should be noted that Xinet is strongly oriented towards Work In Progress DAM (i.e. approvals and workflow etc) as well as tasks like artwork customisation and we have recommend avoiding monolithic platforms on DAM News in the past, so keeping the two use-cases separate has some strategic merit.

The webinar has more detail about what you can get from NEXT in terms of functionality and application design principles, but it is still not entirely satisfactory.  It is essentially a ‘canned demo’ composed of slides and screengrabs.  Personally, I don’t put up with these anymore; it’s 2017, not 1997 and if the firm in question is asking me to give up my time and pay attention to them for more than ten minutes, I want to see real live product, not the edited highlights.  The presentation should show me what I will get as a paying user.  If it doesn’t work yet, or is so buggy that it might not last 30+ minutes, go away and finish the job and/or fix the bugs.  If there are particular messages that need to be included, then these should be delivered as actual media assets in the DAM itself.  If you are reviewing DAM solutions yourself, I recommend you insist on the same and get vendors to confirm this before the call starts.

Based on the screens shown, the product interface seems to borrow more from the OnBrand approach rather than Telescope (where the complex UI is frequently highlighted as an issue).  There isn’t enough ‘surfaced’ (as they say a lot in the video) to get a proper sense of how this all fits together, especially the connectivity between each of the components.  I suspect I wasn’t the only one thinking the same: there is a Q&A session at the end of the webinar and it sounds like a large number of difficult questions were asked and the presenter preferred to not acknowledge them until the time had run out, followed by a promise to answer them later.  This adds to the underlying sense that something still isn’t quite right about Northplains and NEXT.

On the positive side, Northplains evidently understand the context in which DAM systems are now being used and they have a better grasp than a number of their peers.  Their proposal that DAM solutions must be integrated and able to analyse asset usage patterns outside the DAM is one I would concur with and seems to be a common theme among the clients I deal with now.  I note their recognition of the need many enterprises have to correlate digital asset analytics with Big Data sources and it is encouraging to see vendors getting to grips with solving these problems.  My recollection is that Northplains were one of the few vendors to acknowledge the existence of digital asset supply chains some time before these themes became fashionable.  The architecture overview looks like they recognise the principles that need to be in-place to deliver all this, although again, I need tangible proof that this is something they can actually implement rather than just talk about.

My impression with NEXT based on the limited materials available and what I know of them historically is that this appears to be an improvement, but not enough of one.  They do have the right instincts and an understanding of the wider context of DAM, but the feature points and descriptions point towards them now being merely one of many and lacking a clear USP.  Differentiation is a problem for all kinds of vendors across the entire market now and pointing to the fact you have 20+ years of experience carries some weight, but probably not as much as Northplains might hope.

While watching the webinar, I was struck by a peculiar sense of déjà vu over some of the descriptions.  Even the brand name itself, NEXT appeared strangely familiar.  After a bit of searching I found a PDF about Telescope dating from 2011 (this was linked to by one of their resellers).  Astute readers will note the similarity of the material in that document and the terminology in this webinar, for example, the positioning of Telescope and Xinet, the large ‘NEXT STEPS’ text on the last page of the document and the descriptions used like ‘digital media lifecycle’ vs ‘content lifecycle management’.  In fairness to Northplains, the same themes are still prevalent in DAM as they were in 2011, but it all adds to the sense that this might be more of a legacy re-brand and paint-job as opposed to a new platform, I would be suspicious about what legacy code is still lurking under the surface and the implications that may have – especially in view of the point made in the webinar about Northplains selection of existing metadata models they say they have at their disposal.

I would like to see more of NEXT– and the product itself, not just someone talking about it with some carefully selected screen shots.  The current marketing materials supporting NEXT are too vague and could appear evasive to some uncharitable external observers.  Our DAM vendor directory contains entries for Telescope and OnBrand.  We don’t add or update these on-behalf of vendors, so a starting point would be for someone at Northplains to add an entry for NEXT and give some more detail about its capabilities.  If you are a current Northplains customer (or considering becoming one) then my recommendation would be to require them to give you a long and very comprehensive demonstration using only the product itself.  In addition, I would want them to give you full access to a working edition so you can test for at least a couple of months or so (albeit not fully configured for your requirements).  Secondly, I would measure this up against something substantially cheaper and ask Northplains to explain why their platform is superior enough to justify the cost differential.  To be clear, I don’t mean an entry-level faux-DAM like Dropbox or Box.net etc, but products like Assetbank, Third Light, Widen, NetX, WoodWing, Brandworkz or Celum etc (to name just a few).

My recent analysis of some of the  products described is that the differential between what they offer and the likes of Northplains is not as great as it might appear.  The enterprise vendors depend heavily on their professional services offerings to give themselves an edge – but it will be one you as a user will pay a lot for.  I take the view that in 2017, this aspect should be far less about configuring the system (which you should be able to do at least some of yourself) and more about integration with third party data sources.  Interoperability and integration is where the action is in DAM now and that is where you should need far more hands-on assistance.

Northplains clearly understood that they needed to improve their offer, but too much of the way this is presented smells like the way enterprise DAM vendors used to conduct themselves in around 2004 or 2005.  I remain unconvinced (based on the marketing materials provided) that NEXT is a satisfactory platform organisations can base their DAM strategies around for the next decade or more and I think they have a lot more work to do before they can get to that point.

For those contemplating purchasing new or updated DAM solutions, we offer reports and toolkits on selecting vendor products (as well as a pricing survey to see how they compare).  If you prefer to avoid spending any money on this (and I recommend that DAM users educate themselves using freely available resources before spending anything on the paid ones) there are a number of free articles available, like this one I wrote a while ago for CMSWire and another by Jeff Lawrence (for CMSWire as well).  There is a lot of information available about this subject and some of the material prepared by vendors themselves isn’t that bad either, providing you use multiple sources and validate any advice offered.

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