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A Report From the SharePoint Conference 2006

I was fortunate to be able to attend the Microsoft Sharepoint Conference 2006 held in Bellevue Washington the week of May 15. Microsoft used this event to publicly reveal details behind the next major release of SharePoint. In short, Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007 and Windows SharePoint Services version 3 provide a comprehensive platform that now services a large portion of the digital workplace. Any enterprise computing vendor and any company with a substantial investment in Microsoft technologies should take note of this release.

Bill Gates gave the opening keynote address. The press coverage focused on his comments regarding IBM Workplace that came up during the Q&A: "I don’t know of any substantial use of Workplace that is out there". This, of course, upset Ed Brill who fired back with these blog postings (reaction 1, reaction 2).

But the most telling slide from Gates was the analogy of the packaging and integration Microsoft did with the original Office desktop suite of tools and the server-based capabilities now being bundled in Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007. Gates referred to the "vertical systems" of document management, workflow, search, business intelligence, and the multiple definitions of "portal" causing confusion, since no one had a common understanding of how these systems work or what services they provide. So just as the original Microsoft Office put to rest the confusion among the office productivity tools of their time, so to will SharePoint 2007 put to rest the confusion among these vertical systems:

"We're trying to have the commonsense set of templates that you can take for granted that everyone knows, and that you build on within a company to have the logic, the data connectors, the standards, all those things through the SharePoint environment, and so really taking what have been probably six different categories of software and really pulling that together into a single environment."

This set up the rest of the conference, where we learned that the SharePoint 2007 products will bundle the following capabilities:

  • Collaboration (blogs, wikis, project management, team collaboration, etc.)
  • Portal (portal templates, site directory, social networking, etc.)
  • Search
  • Content Management (document and records management, web CM, workflow, etc.)
  • Business Processes and Intelligence (forms, Excel services, data visualization, dashboards, etc.)
  • Built on foundational services such as workspace management, security, and storage

Perhaps the most surprising for me to see was the work being done with records management and knowledge networking. I heard Microsoft was working on a lighter form of records management in several sessions at the Gilbane Conference in San Francisco held just three weeks earlier. During a keynote panel Tony Byrne mentioned that "records management lite" was coming from Microsoft and Oracle and he placed this in his top three technologies that should appear on a content management strategy. He, and others on the panel, said that most records management solutions sold to enterprises are too "heavyweight" with most features not being used.

After I saw the breadth of the records management solution from Microsoft, I believe many enterprise IT buyers will be asking themselves if their high-end content management systems are really needed, especially given the difficulties with getting people to retain documents with appropriate meta-data and policies.

From an architectural perspective, the SharePoint approach to records management is interesting and highlights how the system works to provide a broad set of capabilities. The "Records Repository" that comes with SharePoint is really a template that you can use as-is or as a starting point to customize to your needs. In fact, much of what is delivered in SharePoint is a combination of templates, capabilities built in to the server (things like granular security, content-types, shared meta-data, etc), and capabilities extended into the Office clients; such as exposing a new properties pane in the user interface.

The most pleasant surprise at the conference was the announcement and demonstration of Knowledge Network for Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007. At a session given by John Hand, a Marketing Manager at Microsoft, we saw details behind a product that creates profiles of individuals in an enterprise. These profiles hold topics in which the user is involved and the social connections they have with other SharePoint users. This information is exposed in SharePoint through several interfaces, the most common being an extension of the search interface. So, instead of searching for sites regarding a particular topic, you can search for individuals associated with a topic. You can also search for names of individuals to determine how they relate to you in an enterprise social network. This was really interesting stuff.

Overall, I think you can tell I was impressed with this conference. However, there are some areas in which they could have done better.

First, given that SharePoint is expected to be a pervasive platform throughout a company, I would have liked to see more discussion regarding support for third-party browsers such as Mozilla Firefox. In the Q&A with Bill Gates, someone asked about this and he said this software was created with browser standards in mind: "90 percent of these cases work super, super well in any browser that's reasonably up to date" (I am sure he meant to quote a higher number since ninety percent is not close to acceptable for a web designer). Later in the Excel Services session the presenter said that the solution required no ActiveX and worked with DHTML and Javascript. However, in both cases the speakers stopped short of saying that SharePoint would support third-party browsers. Nor was there any discussion about what features are degraded due to use of a browser other than Internet Explorer.

Next, I would have liked to see a session that went over the Microsoft vision of RSS. SharePoint will be producing many RSS feeds, complementing the new RSS aggregation capabilities coming in Internet Explorer 7 and Outlook 2007. But there was no substantive discussion of why an enterprise would use RSS. Perhaps this has been covered by Microsoft elsewhere, but I have not seen it.

Last, the support of blogs and wikis in SharePoint looked interesting, but there is a shortcoming with rich-text editor support for wiki links. These are links embedded in wiki pages to other named pages on a wiki. Microsoft uses the MediaWiki convention of surrounding the link with a set of double-brackets. For example, to link to another page on the wiki called "Bellevue" the author would type [[Bellevue]] into the post.

In the current SharePoint implementation of wikis this markup text must be typed in exactly like this, meaning there is no button on the rich-text editor to do this for you. This shortcoming is a direct result of an underlying capability that does not support a specific -- but important -- use case. The rich-text editor in SharePoint handles many other rich-text editing features (like text accents such as bold or underline, bulleted lists, etc.) but this use case, though unusual, is quite common for wikis and so this issue sticks out prominently.

To make matters worse, the presenters for the "Blogs, Wikis, and RSS" session only mentioned this shortcoming after lampooning Wikipedia for having such a lousy interface for rich-text editing. They showed the wiki markup source for a Wikipedia page full of the strange-looking syntax (which includes, among all of the wiki markup, the double-bracket syntax for referring to other Wikipedia pages). For those in the audience knowledgeable of wikis and Wikipedia this was almost unbearable since it showed the speaker did not have a clear understanding of these types of products. When SharePoint can support a Wikipedia, they can shoot arrows.

However, this highlights a potential risk of leveraging SharePoint for use cases like blogs and wikis. While SharePoint can provide scalable services that standard blog engines may struggle to support, there could be other tactical issues (in addition to the lack of support for wiki links) that are exposed and can not be resolved until a capability is built into the platform (which could be a long time given release cycles).

These nagging questions, along with the broadly assumed definition of "enterprise" to mean an intranet running all Microsoft products, left me unsure whether Microsoft will become an enterprise Web 2.0 company any time soon. While I believe a platform like SharePoint 2007 could easily position Microsoft to deliver enterprise-grade Web 2.0 services, I think this may be difficult for them as long as the Office and SharePoint teams appear to be so inwardly focused.

In any case, Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007 should have the attention of enterprise software vendors and of companies that use Microsoft products extensively. This is a comprehensive product servicing a large portion of the digital workplace.

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