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Cloud file sharing pushes ECM content for mobile apps

Cloud file sharing has been a boon for remote collaboration. Now file-sharing apps are poised to help users manage content for mobile experiences.

Cloud file sharing has become a staple for knowledge workers who need to share files and collaborate on projects. But improving efficiency of traditional file management is just the beginning when it comes to delivering timely and vital information to mobile workers.

The trend is toward mobile applications that can anticipate a user's likely actions, based on location and other factors. This is a shift from traditional Web experiences, where users search for specific terms in the hope of "pulling" the results they want. Today, contextually aware mobile devices linked with company enterprise content management (ECM) systems can "push" essential content to knowledge workers at the right place and time. We can contrast this with companies' previous emphasis on "pull" technologies that tried to draw audiences to their sites and develop loyal followings.

The key is seamlessly linking the transfer of relevant information from ECM repositories to mobile devices. Cloud file sharing can provide the linkage; a major file-sharing application vendor is positioning itself to offer that service.

Of course, content security remains an issue, both when stored within repositories and on mobile devices. Mobile apps should include capabilities for securing any content stored on devices, while ECM systems maintain security for content at rest within repositories.

In the passages below, we'll explore the file-sharing capabilities of ECM systems and consider examples of its potential.

The power of file sharing

File sharing is useful for office work. We know the drill with desktop stalwarts from the client/server computing era, such as Windows Explorer and Apple Finder. We navigate through a hierarchical file plan, using terms that make sense within our business environment. We select files and run the relevant applications to access the content. Behind the scenes, and largely hidden from end users, the underlying filing system locates individual files in physical storage devices, manages ownership, and controls access by grouping items into logical folders.

ECM systems such as EMC Documentum, OpenText, and Microsoft SharePoint extend this hierarchical filing model across ever-larger collections of networked storage devices within an enterprise. While leveraging relational database technologies, these systems also add features for document management (including check in/check out controls and version management), workflow, enhanced security, and records management.

Beyond file sync and share

Now fast-forward to the mobile revolution. Today's file, sync and share (FSS) services are just the latest iteration in this 30-year evolution of hierarchal filing systems designed for storing, organizing, and securing content within a shared repository. Multichannel apps for both mobile and desktop devices -- from FSS vendors such as Box, Dropbox, EMC, Google, Microsoft and a host of other competitors -- replicate our shared desktop environments by synchronizing portions of hierarchical filing systems with smartphones and tablets. Each vendor has its own mobile app and security model for accessing content within a shared file system.

Notice this approach to mobile content management remains a pull experience. We browse through a synchronized list of files, find the desired ones, then invoke other apps to access the content. We can update files on our mobile devices and periodically synchronize again with the back-end repositories.

While useful in many work situations, these are hardly high-value, transformational solutions truly exploiting the power of enterprise mobility. Rather, this is simply replicating and extending a desktop environment to mobile devices.

Pushing content to task-oriented apps

Let's be clear: FSS apps that manage shared files can also start a mobile journey within an enterprise. But as we have previously recognized time and again, enterprise mobility is fundamentally a push experience for task-oriented apps. We expect mobile content to be contextual, relevant and smart.

Here are a few likely scenarios that provide examples of content-centric push experiences within an enterprise:

  • Sales executives from pharmaceutical firms often have limited time to meet with physicians. These execs have little time to waste searching online for background information. Better to walk into such meetings with content tailored to the doctor's particular areas of interest, which has been preloaded onto tablets. Execs are more likely to spend time engaged in productive discussions, leveraging documents stored within the back-end repository to present information as needed, and recording follow-up actions.
  • Building inspectors need to ensure that construction jobs are done right and resolve problems as they arise. Relying on a task-oriented app to automatically recognize job locations, inspectors can arrive at a site with all relevant documents preloaded into a mobile device. Inspectors can then annotate the building plans and work orders and even add photos to record progress. The results are then automatically updated to back-end systems as inspection records.

Notice how the information flow shifts. Sales execs and building inspectors are no longer pulling files from a shared repository. Rather, the mobile apps organize and push content, structured around particular tasks, to knowledge workers in the field.

Delivering content-rich mobile experiences

The transformation from pull to push experiences requires mobile back-end services that both access and update content within a shared repository. Savvy developers will build task-oriented apps by utilizing content managed within a shared repository and hosted within a public, private or hybrid cloud environment. In addition to providing essential content management services, including file-level security, the repository supports access to extensive metadata, which is useful for mobilizing enterprise applications. The richer the metadata capabilities, the more flexible and targeted the mobile experience can become.

Increasingly, file sharing systems will evolve into mobile back-end services.

Box was first among FSS vendors to recognize the opportunity this trend presents. The company is preparing to introduce an application-level platform to facilitate file sharing for push experiences. Announced as a closed-beta product in April, Box Developer Edition will reportedly offer seamless integration of Box enterprise file sharing with user applications, delivering the file sync and share foundations for mobile app development. The Developer Edition will include extensible software development kits (SDKs) and prebuilt user interface components businesses can exploit to meet their unique content management needs. For instance, developers will be able to leverage platform services and SDKs to rapidly add sensor data and images from mobile devices to files stored within Box.

Pushing the mobile solution envelope

Other FSS vendors are likely to follow suit, providing developers with innovative services to push content to mobile devices. As an early indicator of this trend, Microsoft has embarked on several initiatives focusing on how cloud features through Office 365 can enhance SharePoint on-premises deployments.

Increasingly, file-sharing systems will evolve into mobile back-end services, which work behind the scenes, stitching together different applications and data siloes to provide a seamless user experience for task-oriented apps.

Looking ahead, cloud file sharing will likely remain quite useful for getting things done within a mobile-savvy enterprise. But as companies invest in FSS apps, they should also pay attention to their underlying information architecture; for example, how they are indexing and categorizing all of the content they expect to deliver to mobile devices. To support the transformation from pull to push experiences, content delivery needs to become proactive and leverage the contextual queues that can help mobile enterprise solutions push the envelope for user experience and efficiency.


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