Does SharePoint Have Future As A Social Platform?

Analysts speaking at Enterprise 2.0 say Microsoft's collaboration platform is more than a portal, but less than a social network.
Microsoft SharePoint continues to play a major role in the evolution of social software within the enterprise, even though by itself SharePoint is a mediocre social software platform.

Analysts Tony Byrne, president of the Real Story Group, and Rob Koplowitz, VP and principal analyst at Forrester Research, agreed on that much, even though they differed on some of the details, in a panel discussion at Enterprise 2.0 in Santa Clara, Calif., a UBM TechWeb event. The moderator was Steve Wylie, a general manager with UBM TechWeb's conference division and past organizer of the Enterprise 2.0 events.

When Wylie asked Koplowitz whether SharePoint was "just a portal," his answer was an emphatic "no" because, although SharePoint includes a portal, it provides many other capabilities. Yet when asked if SharePoint was a social network, Koplowitz shook his head and said, "it's a lot better portal than it is a social platform."

Enterprise 2.0
The story of SharePoint's shortcomings as social software hasn't changed significantly since similar discussions were held at June's Enterprise 2.0 event in Boston. SharePoint 2010 provides basic building blocks, including user profiles and activity stream updates, but transforming it into a satisfying corporate social network requires either a healthy dose of configuration and customization, or the addition of third-party software such as NewsGator Social Sites.

"They've built a decent platform for lightweight file-oriented collaboration," Byrne said, and that's something a lot of organizations will find useful. "But SharePoint only provides two of the 10 or 11 key applications enterprises are looking for" in a social platform, he said.

[Take a look at the Top 20 Add-Ons For Microsoft SharePoint.]

"The consumer market is leading the enterprise market, and that is moving very quickly," Koplowitz said. Microsoft's challenge is that it positions SharePoint as part of an enterprise middleware suite that also includes components like Exchange and Lync, with synchronized releases coming on a three- to four-year development cycle. User expectations for how social software should work are being set by the pace of change at Facebook and other public social networks, and favor more agile software companies who put out new releases frequently, or as incremental updates to a cloud service.

Microsoft has a history of selling SharePoint as a platform and leaving room for competitors to round out its capabilities, Byrne said. That's been the case for utilities like replication, as it has been for social. The challenge for vendors creating social extensions to SharePoint is to stay a step ahead of Microsoft's advances in the basic platform, "which so far hasn't been too difficult for them," he said.

Koplowitz agreed he had been wondering if NewsGator, for example, would see its software made obsolete by SharePoint 2010 "but I would argue that NewsGator today is more relevant than before 2010." At Enterprise 2.0, NewsGator was showcasing features like video sharing, rich profiles, and search for experts, all tightly integrated with SharePoint but with a richer feature set. The danger for vendors like NewsGator, Koplowitz said, is that the pace of change in enterprise social networking might slow down, given that enterprises are already having trouble digesting the features that are available today. In that case, even "a slow-moving platform like SharePoint" might be able to catch up, Koplowitz said.

Wylie asked the analysts to comment on SharePoint bashing by Enterprise 2.0 keynoter Box CEO Aaron Levie and whether his product poses a real challenge to SharePoint.

"Yes and no," Byrne said. "Box is still not a major player, and I don't think it's a threat to SharePoint or the SharePoint platform per se. On the other hand, the dirty little secret of SharePoint is that the vast majority of its usage is for very basic file sharing." From that standpoint, the emergence of utilities like Box that provide simple file sharing in the cloud means "there is some exposure there," he said.

"The cloud in general could be very threatening to Microsoft," Koplowitz agreed, even though he believes "Microsoft is doing a remarkably good job of responding" to that threat. Box in particular has the potential to become a bigger threat if it broadens its capabilities beyond file sharing, he said.

Even when enterprises choose another platform for enterprise social networking, integration with SharePoint is extremely important, Koplowitz said. In one Forrester case study on Molson Coors, adoption of Yammer improved dramatically following integration using the Yammer Web Part for SharePoint, which made Yammer activity visible within the portal.

"What makes SharePoint an interesting product is the breadth of capability," Koplowitz said. Organizations that have already made a commitment to SharePoint should consider how social software features "can be additive to SharePoint," he said. On the other hand, he would not recommend an organization with no previous SharePoint investment adopt the platform as the foundation for enterprise social networking--certainly not unless you want to take advantage of SharePoint's other features.

"If you're going to take on this beast--if you're going to take the buffalo down--you'd better be prepared to consume every part of it," Koplowitz said.

Follow David F. Carr on Twitter @davidfcarr. The BrainYard is @thebyard.

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