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John Newton is a great source of wisdom for managers of OSS-centric start-ups of any functionality because he's been through the last two major shifts in software market dynamics in his career.



In the 1980s, fresh out of Berkeley, John started with Ingres (the old Ingres before it was part of and then spun out of CA). In 1990, he and some friends founded Documentum, based over in the East Bay at Pleasanton. Documentum became a leader in the enterprise content management (ECM) market and was acquired by disk-drive-maker-cum-software-supplier EMC in 2003. But by that time John had moved to the U.K. to work from Documentum's European office and he liked it there so much he never formally moved back to the U.S. He left Documentum in 2001, launched an application company in the U.K. for the financial services industry under the brand Activiti, and then in 2005 he co-founded Alfresco. The Ingres/Documentum experience was highly related to the client/server shift in the market whereas the Activiti/Alfresco experience is highly linked to Web 2.0.

Lesson for users: you can never make hard and fast distinctions when it comes to computer architectural shifts highly touted in the press. They happen over decades and are very iterative. It's functionality that counts. That's why, as a lesson for investors, John Newton cautions against emphasizing any company or product characteristic higher than one rates functionality. In Alfresco's case, as it had been with Documentum, the functionality is ECM.

Newton thinks the heritage ECM guys, including his old company, have so much tied up in legacy client/server code that they can't move forward effectively or quickly to this generation. As way of recent background, Newton and former Business Objects Senior VP of operations John Powell decided to start a new ECM software company because the market was consolidating and because they believed they could offer a cost-effective alternative to those companies carrying legacy baggage.

They felt that was especially true in the ECM distribution channel, which was being squeezed by the proprietary ECM suppliers. Given their backgrounds, Newton and Powell concentrated on the enterprise in ECM rather than on web content management features.

As for a lesson for other software supplier startups, Newton says make development decisions that makes sense for your business plan and target market. Even more important than his choice to go OSS with Alfresco, Newton credits his choice to use aspect oriented programming (AOP). He said it was similar to a decision he had made when starting Documentum to use object-oriented programming (OOP). As a result, he caught the wave of a new development paradigm ahead of the market but after it was mature enough to fit his needs. "AOP makes everything overridable; everything is pluggable…, extendable," says Newton. The three characteristics-overridable, pluggable and extendable are key features needed when emphasizing the enterprise in ECM. AOP let the Alfresco team build the product from the ground up and more quickly ("five times faster in Alfresco's case") than any other option he considered.

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