Monday, August 27, 2007

Enterprise products in Linux to beat MS Office/Sharepoint

The most common applications in enterprises apart from communications are office suites(word processing, spread sheets) and collaboration/workflow.

These needs are currently being met by MS-Office product range and either MS-Sharepoint/Groove or other proprietary/custom developed solutions.

There are a couple of strategies for Linux to provide value here:
  1. Openoffice + Portal/CMS (Liferay/Alfresco).
  2. Completely browser based solution.
I am not a big fan of solution '1' for the enterprise. The management overhead is too high if you want to manage Openoffice (any desktop application for that matter) on 1000+desktops. I will not discuss too much on this.
We have envisioned a more scalable and easier solution. What we are working on is:
Browser based office solutions(like google docs) with the following features:
  1. Browser based editing (store docs on server as xml)
  2. Workflow engine and workflow features (Modular, Generic, Customisable for each enterprise, multiple workflows as required. User/Admin created workflows 'on the fly', Standard doc templates and workflow templates.)
  3. Security by data encryption - Ability to encrypt any data by user and ability of user to share encrypted data without exchanging keys - transparent sharing of encrypted data. protects data from sysadmins too
  4. Version control (using subversion) - This will be a key feature and easily implementable on a server based system
  5. Additional collaborative features like integrating IM/voice/video with the docs/artifacts.
Example scenario:
  1. Marketing executive (exec) creates a new document based on an enquiry from a client(Enq-doc-1). He does this by filling in an on-line template(Enq-doc-template) standardised within the organisation. He fills this template over 2-3 days saving drafts whenever he puts in more information. Once he thinks he has filled in all information, he saves it and clicks on the 'submit' button.
    1. The document is automatically routed to his boss - the branch manager (br-mgr). The boss reviews the document, thinks that some more information is needed.
    2. The boss asks for the information in either of these ways:
      1. Types requests in relevant section of document itself and 'send back' to executive.
      2. Types in the requests in a separate 'comments' text box provided in the browser.
      3. Puts in an IM message.
      4. 'Talks' her message into the browser and 'sends' it to the exec.
      5. This message is by default 'attached' to the context of this document. (As an option, the message may be set in global context - i.e. a general message not related to this Enq-doc-1)
  2. The exec receives the message and fills in the required information. He 'talks' into the browser to say that the client is very keen to sign the document ASAP. This voice recording is again saved with the context of the Enq-doc-1 and can be listened to by the br-mgr.
  3. Normally the br-mgr and provide the required input which is routed to the exec for him to provide the quote to the client.
  4. In this special case, the order is a big one and the br-mgr decides to take the support of the regional HQ mgr (rHQ-mgr) before supporting the quotation. She verifies the document and 'dynamically' changes workflow to forward it to rHQ-mgr sitting in a separate office. They arrange to have a VOIP conference call where the rHQ-Mgr and br-mgr get together with the exec and thrash out the details. The exec updates the quotation, gets approval from his boss and the rHQ-mgr and mails it out to the client.
  5. He visits the client and some more negotiation comes up. He immediately logs into the Intranet portal and arranges an Video conference between the client, br-mgr and rHQ-mgr. The rHQ-mgr offers a slightly changed solution which the client likes and confirms the deal. BTW the video and audio of the conference is automatically saved in the context of Enq-doc-1 (and can be optionally deleted if storage is a problem.)
Key points:
  1. All interaction is browser based.
  2. All context is saved.
  3. The most convenient medium of communication can be used.
  4. No information is lost and mis-understanding can me minimised.
  5. We have every version of every document.
  6. Document templates
  7. Workflow templates
  8. Document to template mappings 'on the fly'.
  9. Multimedia capabilities.
  10. We can explore whether we can give this as an installable at a later stage.

It might be a good idea to have this as an independent distro. This product is aimed at thin client operation.
Sub-projects here will be:
  1. Extensible, modular Workflow engine.
  2. Ruby security/encryption plugin.
  3. Portlet interface to previously discussed communication server.
  4. Browser based Office applications.
  5. Generic export/import for various Office doc formats and PDF.

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