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Brian Behlendorf on the Sharepoint threat to open source

Sharepoint isn't just a product - it's Microsoft's platform for the 21st Century, and a major threat to open source, as Brian Behlendorf articulated today.

I'm here at Alfresco's inaugural Community Council today, listening to Brian Behlendorf talk about "The Threat of Microsoft SharePoint to Open Source." What follows is a report of Brian's talk, wtih a little of my own commentary mixed in.

Brian spent the first ten minutes talking about collaborative software, defining it and articulating what real collaborative software should comprise. One of his primary points was that true collaborative software must be open to external ecosystems. This involves more than single sign-on. It's about connecting the underlying data between applications. It's about making data easily linked between applications (e.g., email with hyperlinks to the Jira bug-tracking system with links to documentation with links to...etc.).

Brian didn't say or suggest this, but this is one of the biggest problems with Sharepoint. It's fine if you've given your IT soul to Microsoft, as it connects with everything else within the Microsoft ecosystem. But if you want to connect to alternative universes...? Good luck.

What Brian did say about Sharepoint is potentially more troubling. Has the open-source community effectively given away a big chunk of the future's software stack to Microsoft? And has it effectively ceded the role of data aggregation to Sharepoint? The open-source world has superior wikis like Socialtext and MindTouch to Microsoft's internal wiki, but Microsoft's half-baked bundled suite is likely to win out unless the open-source world doesn't get together to present a viable open-source competitor.

Companies like SocialText (as well as all other plug-in providers to Sharepoint) are now ceding the central repository role to Sharepoint, playing plug-in to Microsoft. But as Brian noted,

In any successful single-vendor platform, the vendor always end up competiing with its plug-in providers, because the platform vendor can't help itself if [an opportunity] looks profitable.

Being a small piece in Microsoft's Sharepoint ecosystem is a recipe for failure. Being a part of an ecosystem of open collaborative ("social") enterprise applications is a recipe for freedom and opportunity. As Brian suggested, "Application vendors need to meet to figure out which non-differentiating functionality they can combine, give away, or throw out." We should not cede technical sovereignty to Microsoft.

Brian quoted Tim O'Reilly on this point. Tim is absolutely right when he says:

We all want...a definitive place under our own control where we can describe who we are and what we care about so that applications can use that data to provide us with smarter services. We don't really care whether that repository is at Facebook or Google or any other site, or perhaps even if it's an aggregation of data from many places, but we do want it to become more useful to us. Not just more useful to the holder of our profile, but to every site we touch on the internet. Whichever company gets there first, to a truly open, user-empowering, internet-turbocharging social network platform, is going to be the net's next big winner.

This doesn't mean that open-source applications shouldn't integrate with Sharepoint. But our vision has to be bigger than as a small node on Microsoft's network. It also needs to be bigger than packaged software (i.e., we need to embrace the Internet and web-based applications and the data they create/store).

Open source offers the promise of an open collaborative network of applications, with no single vendor controlling the network. This is good for vendors and for customers.

Microsoft's opportunity is Microsoft's. It's a one-way road to Redmond. To have a true community of social, communal applications, we need open source, open APIs, and open standards.

Disclosure: I work for Alfresco, an open-source social computing company that competes with Microsoft's Sharepoint product.