Home > ECM, history, innovation > My first DMS kiss…

My first DMS kiss…

A recent tweet exchange with @pmonks and @pelujan (legends amongst the ECM Twitterati…) prompted me to dig deep into my past to find my first flirting with Document Management, a relationship that has lasted over 35 years.

The year: 1984

The venue: London, offices of a Greek shipping company

The actor: An impoverished first year BSc student

The platform: Perkin-Elmer (later Concurrent) super-minis, 32-bit architecture

The language: CoBoL with proprietary RDBMS and transaction processing

The screen: Green on Black

The medium: X.25 network, over a private leased London-to-Athens line

The gig: Long-distance telephone calls between London and Athens offices were costing the company a fortune. Also, the timezone difference reduced the effective daily communication window by 4 hours. The company was looking for a way to leverage their existing technology platform, to exchange messages between offices synchronously or asynchronously, without incurring additional telephone costs.

The solution: A database system written in Cobol, which allowed terminal users at either end to pick a recipient from a list or registered users, leave a message from the user to the opposite party and receive a message back. Since it showed a history of the messages exchanged between the parties, if both parties were on-line, then you could have a dialogue in real-time (line-by-line). If not, the other party would pick the message when they logged in and respond back. This was using a temporary database table. If either party wanted to keep a permanent record of the conversation, they would “archive it” in a separate table, holding metadata like start time, end time, from, to, a subject description, location, etc. Also, since I wanted to be able to exchange messages about code with other programmers in the head office, it had a primitive system of referencing external files on shared disks.

In today’s terminology, this was email, Instant Messaging, micro-blogging and Document Management system rolled into one. An early form of social collaboration. I designed it and built it in about two weeks and it was used daily. It was simple, crude but effective.

[A side note for the pedants: I know email systems were already around by then in the Unix community, but they were not commonplace and they certainly were not available on a business platform like the Perkin-Elmer. Remember, 1984: no TCI/IP, no Internet, no Windows, no PCs, no files]

Since then, I’ve worked on many more weird DMS implementations, before the Document Management market was even identified as such: A hand-crafted invoice processing system written in VB with Kofax cards and massive Cornerstone monitors on OS/2 machines; A bespoke DMS for commercial property agents, with distributed desktop scanning (property images) attached to workflow (rental review) cases; A bespoke DMS based on Uniplex and Informix 4GL for lawyers, a fully fledged DMS with version control and content searching on NeXT machines, using C, Informix and BRS-Search (free-text database), later ported to a disasterous Ingres implementation on Windows 3.11

By then Documentum came on the scene and I remember writing VB for a very early implementation of version 1 (effectively just a set of APIs) for a Pharmaceutical company. FileNet was already on the scene with the first notion of Imaging+Workflow as a single intergrated platform, but our paths were not to cross until a decade later.

Now, there is a point to this inane drivel, beyond self-indulgence…

In today’s confused ECM market, none of these early bespoke implementations would classify as proper “Document Management”. Yet at the time, they were all innovative, trailblazing, and large companies would pay good money to implement them. It created the legitimate (if schizophrenic) ECM market space that we live in and love today.

When I launched “Document Management Avenue” in 1995 – the first independent online community forum for DMS, for those old enough to remember – we were tracking over 300 products in this space. I still have the list somewhere. Today, most of us can only point at a dozen or so major ECM / EDRMS vendors.

There you have it. My own short history of watching the birth of ECM – The bespoke became product, which became open-source, which became commodity. The rest, as they say, is history… And some of us are still arguing what to call the baby 🙂

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