Workflow management is going mainstream

One thing seems quite certain about the technology business: the number of files each one of us has to manage is not going to decrease, says ZDNet columnist Andreas Pfeiffer.

COMMENTARY--The ability to manage complex workflow situations has been one of the main selling points of high end editorial and content management systems, but it seemed to be of little concern for smaller workgroups and individual users. This is about to change.

A few days ago, Macromedia announced Sitespring, a collaborative software system which targets small to mid-size workgroups. What Sitespring does is quite simple: it keeps track of the revision and approval process in Web design projects. This is nothing new in itself: content management systems as well as editorial systems for the newspaper and magazine publishing market have been offering these possibilities for many years.

What is new, however, is that such a system is targetting small workgroups (Macromedia is talking about 5-20 users), and that it is made available as a user-manageable system at an affordable price ($1,999 for three users, $499 per additional user).

Quite clearly, Macromedia has spotted a market trend here. The typical workgroup in Web design firms is small, but it has very extensive needs for file-management. Those who have worked in this context know how fast the number of files in a Web project mushrooms, and how challenging it can become to keep track of versions and approval status when several people have to work with the same file in a variety of ways.

True to its market position, Macromedia is going squarely after the Web design market with Sitespring, and it should not have any problems creating mind share for the project which integrates very nicely with the other products in the company's lineup.

An emerging market
The market for small scale workflow products, however, goes well beyond Web design groups. Personal Workflow Solutions could turn out to be one of the fastest growing market segments in the next few years, as professional users and small teams become increasingly used to the concept. This will depend on a number of factors: the most important is user awareness. The market research that Macromedia has conducted for the Sitespring project clearly shows that small to mid-size workgroups are aware of the issues involved and of the need to manage projects more effectively.

A similar trend is likely to emerge in the design and publishing market: just as magazine publishers are increasingly looking to install complete editorial systems, smaller workgroups are increasingly aware of the benefits of managing the collaborative process more effectively.

Room for new players
This in turn means that there is a market niche opening for smaller developers. Expect low-end, easy to use solutions for personal workflow management to crop up in the most unexpected places and from new players in the market. Traditionally, high-end solutions for major corporations may trickle down to medium-sized companies, but providers of such systems are usually not in a good position to develop and market shrink-wrapped software. The leading page layout software, QuarkXPress, was not developed by a company with a foothold in professional composition, but by a startup working on an elaborate word-processor. Adobe Photoshop was initially based on a file conversion utility. Already, a number of smaller companies are heavily involved in bringing workflow systems to a wider audience.

As for the market, it can only grow. There may be few things to be sure about in the technology business, but one things seems quite certain: the number of files each one of us has to manage is not going to decrease.

Andreas Pfeiffer is an industry analyst and editor in chief of the Pfeiffer Report on Emerging Trends and Technologies.