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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Open Platforms in E-Discovery

Most large companies face a dilemma. Should they open up their products and invite others to build features on them, creating a “platform” or ecosystem around themselves? Or would that be inviting the proverbial fox into the hen-house, meaning they should instead prevent others from integrating with their product or leveraging it to create add-on functionality?

In the internet world, there is no doubt about the answer: throw open the doors via easy-to-use APIs (“application programming interfaces”) and let a thousand flowers bloom. That’s what FaceBook did a couple of weeks back with their announcement of the FaceBook Platform, and it has already led to hundreds of new applications for their users. It is what Skype did so effectively, creating a mini-industry around themselves of voicemail, skins, ring-tones, and more. Even eBay, which has jealously guarded its feedback ratings and has habitually crushed smaller companies in its cross-hairs, is embracing the open platform mantra, announcing this week that third-party companies can build features that work with eBay in new ways.

By contrast, telecom companies live in a world of closed standards. Even in the wireless industry, which is arguably the most competitive part of the telecom world, the carriers (Cingular, T-Mobile, Verizon, etc.) exact a heavy toll on any application trying to reach their handsets. As friends in the industry tell me, “There’s a reason why there has never been a billion dollar mobile application company.”

In e-discovery, the large technology vendors like EMC, HP, Symantec, and ZANTAZ face the same choice. Their email archiving products store huge amounts of data. Should they let 3rd party e-discovery software analyze that data, giving their customers more choice? Or should they slam the door shut, and try to force customers to use their own proprietary e-discovery applications?

The answer, it seems, depends on what they want to be when they grow up. As the market leader, Symantec is confident enough to open its archive (Enterprise Vault) to 3rd party applications while offering customers its own Discovery Accelerator for litigations holds and some document review. Similarly, perhaps because of its powerful brand, HP focuses on storage optimization with HP RISS and partners with e-discovery software, often with huge savings for its customers. On the other side of the coin, smaller companies like ZANTAZ and Mimosa see themselves as e-discovery companies: they seek to leverage their storage products to get customers to also buy their e-discovery applications.

In the long-run, my feeling is that any archive of any stature will have to adopt open standards. Customers will demand it, and (unlike telecom companies) the archive vendors do not have the market power to resist. Over time, they will also come to appreciate (as HP and Symantec do now) that enabling 3rd party applications to analyze the data they store is to their advantage, since it creates a powerful, additional incentive to store more information in the archive.

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