a collection of floppy discs
PHOTO: Richard Masoner

Twenty years. We use this time frame to think about generations of people and generations of technologies (although the 20-year frame for the latter is increasingly challenged).

I recently stumbled across a 1998 artifact of one of my proudest AIIM moments: the keynote presentation given by Sir Tim Berners-Lee at the AIIM 1998 Show and Conference, "Managing the Web: Chaos to Quality."

We Got One Thing Right in 1998

The reason for my hubris is not the awesome graphic quality of the slides, as you can see from the example below. Nor is it the specific predictions Berners-Lee made in the presentation, although I do look somewhat wistfully at his “what are we aiming for” list, given all that has happened to the web since:

slide from Tim Berners-Lee keynote at 1998 AIIM trade show

Nor do I take particular pride in the challenges he made to the attendees regarding the intersection of markets and culture and the web — “It’s up to you,” he said — given how far short we have fallen in meeting those challenges:

  1. [Automated] Agents: Will they stabilize or destabilize markets?
  2. Lack of geography [in the web]: Will it polarize or homogenize culture?
  3. Web access: Will it be the great divider or great equalizer?
  4. And his final: Jealousy and hatred or Peace, love and understanding?

Rather, I take pride that he was even invited to keynote a pretty staid document management and microfilm and LAN-focused trade show in 1998. I am amazed that between me and Jeff Arcuri, my show director at the time, we somehow got at least one thing right about the future course of content management.

Who Would Have Predicted?

A lot of the show attendees wondered what on earth this guy was doing keynoting an AIIM event. A year or so before Berners-Lee's keynote, AIIM’s magazine, Inform, editorialized:

“… despite the euphoria of Internet enthusiasts and the hyped-up selling palaver of some web services providers, we remain uncertain as to the long-run substantive benefits the Internet will bring to businesses and to individual users. We have noted the demise of BBSs, preempted by graphically-intensive web sites, and we have listened to the siren singing of marketers who tout the web as the ultimate vehicle for selling both business and consumer products. Will newspapers. magazines and other print media fade away, we wonder, as we all forsake our Lazy Boys and power up our Pentiums?

Like most who have sampled it, we like the Internet. And we think Intranet usage for document management makes eminent good sense. But until the webmeisters persuade us otherwise, we'll hang onto our CDs and floppies, along with the aperture cards and other imaging artifacts that have served our corporate and personal purposes so cost-effectively in the past.”

I’m glad they liked the internet. To cut the magazine a little slack, keep in the mind the following was also true in 1998:

  • Apple was a $7 billion company, had just lost $1 billion, Steve Jobs had just come back, and the iPhone was a decade away.
  • Amazon was less than 4 years old and had $147 million in revenues.
  • Google wouldn’t be founded for another four months.
  • Mark Zuckerberg was 14 years old.
  • SharePoint wouldn’t appear on the scene for three years, and Box and Alfresco not for another seven.

The Future's Always Clear in Hindsight

I'm taking this little trip down memory lane to raise these points as pontificate about the future:

  • When technology innovation is at a point of radical inflection, as it was in the late 1990s as the web and the internet became real, it’s almost impossible to accurately predict what will happen.
  • It usually takes 15 to 20 years (and that time span is getting shorter and shorter) for radical technology innovations to manifest themselves into transformed business models.
  • It’s the people and companies that get the business models right — Zuckerberg, Bezos, Brin/Page, Jobs — who wind up with the golden ticket.
  • Transformation is almost always more dramatic and discontinuous with the past than we think.
  • Those holding the golden tickets in one era won't always retain them in the next.

Right now, we are in the midst of a new period of radical technology innovation tied to cognitive, machine learning and robotic processing technologies that are only just beginning to transform business and technology delivery models.

As this transformation occurs, our notions of what this ultimately will mean for the content and information management space are hampered by the blinders of how things currently are. In response to this uncertainty, many enterprise content management vendors are repositioning against “content services,” with some actually changing their products and delivery models and others just slapping a “new and improved” label on.

This makes sense as a stopgap, but it underestimates the change coming to this space if you look a little bit further into the future. What this space will look like in five to 10 years (let’s not even venture out to 20!) will be much more fundamentally transformed by cognitive, machine, and robotic processing technologies than we can possibly imagine from our current vantage point.

I worry we may very well look back in 2025 on some of the predictions we are making in 2018 about the future of content management (myself included) with the same sense of wry amusement that we now view those in 1998 who were resisting the “attack of the webmeisters” (a good name for a movie?) and were hanging onto their CDs, floppies, aperture cards and other imaging artifacts.

At the very point they were clutching their floppy discs, they were moving into irrelevance.