Instead of the usual habit of saving documents to a hard drive, Microsoft wants you to place them in server-based collaborative "work spaces" that can be accessed by multiple people. Such document sharing is one of the main ideas behind SharePoint, a critical part of Microsoft's strategy to unite business applications and processes. It's also viewed as a major motivator for getting businesses to upgrade to current versions of key Microsoft products.
Microsoft is pushing its SharePoint technology as a tool for collaboration among office workers.
SharePoint is also viewed as a major motivator for getting businesses to upgrade to current versions of key Microsoft products.
SharePoint began life several years ago as a tool for creating corporate portals that serve as entryways to documents such as human resources forms, but more recently, it has expanded functionality and split.
Windows SharePoint Services, a collection of tools for creating document work spaces and other basic collaboration tasks, is now a free add-on for Windows Server 2003, the latest edition of Microsoft's server operating systems. Support for SharePoint sites, including the ability to save documents to a public work space with a flick of the Save As command, is built into Office 2003, the latest version of Microsoft's productivity software.
More elaborate collaboration tasks are handled by SharePoint Portal Server, a collection of tools for managing portals and other jobs. It sells for $5,619 and currently has about 10 percent of the nascent and highly fractured portal market, in which home-built solutions still predominate, according to research company Nemertes.
SharePoint is part of the foundation of a broad rethinking of the way office workers use computers, Nemertes analyst Melanie Turek said. The idea is to get people to think beyond their desktop and use environments that allow real-time communication such as instant messaging, document collaboration and other tasks.
Erik Ryan, product manager, Microsoft
"I really think Microsoft sees collaboration as kind of underpinning for the way people work together in the future," Turek said. "They're putting a lot of work behind real-time collaboration. They very much want to make it something that's easy to deploy."
Nancy McSharry Jensen, Microsoft's group product manager for collaboration marketing, said SharePoint is a key element of a broader plan for changing the way people work.
"We've really set SharePoint up to be this collaboration hub for the Windows desktop," she said. "This is a really integral part of Microsoft's future strategy."
Jensen added that information "pops up in islands" throughout corporations, but people can't find it, rendering some business decisions guesswork. "That's the problem we're tying to solve," she said.
Further down the road, SharePoint's role is likely to morph again, said Peter Pawlak, an analyst at research firm Directions on Microsoft. That will occur, as functions for managing common documents and other types of content are embedded into the WinFS file management system used by Longhorn, the next version of Windows.
"The idea of being able to manage access to other types of documents, whether it's Web content or links to other sites--stuff that SharePoint does today--will partly be handled by the file system in the future," he said. "The file system will be able to search and index documents much better; to make information findable in a sort of standardized and centralized manner."
The combination of WinFS and SharePoint can then become a small-business version of the complex content management software companies such as Documentum and Interwoven sell to Fortune 500 buyers.
"For companies that don't do structured content publishing, they don't need the whole content management smorgasbord to take care of their relatively modest needs," Pawlak said. "They'll be fine with the Microsoft approach."
A shared environment
When it split SharePoint into two products a year ago, Microsoft also folded the line into Office System, a growing family of applications built around its market-leading productivity package. The move wasn't just a branding exercise, either: Office support is viewed as crucial for the broad adoption of collaboration tools.
Providing a single, unified environment is one of the most important factors in determining the success of a collaboration system, said Jonathan Spira, CEO of research firm Basex. By integrating collaboration tools with the environment office workers spend most of their day in, Microsoft comes closer to meeting this "one-environment rule" than most collaboration systems, he said.
"Given the ubiquity of tools like Word and Outlook, having that as the opening point makes a lot of sense," Spira said. "It's not yet fully compliant with the one-environment rule, but it's a good step toward it." He said getting everything talking to everything within the software package is a starting point, because most office work involves components such as Word, Outlook or Excel.
Microsoft's Jensen agreed, saying any collaboration system that requires office workers to learn a new set of tools is likely to meet resistance. "The end user is saying, 'I just want to use Office; I just want to use Outlook; I don't want to learn something new. Let me use what I know how to use,'" she said.
For people already accustomed to using Office, SharePoint makes it easy to start working in a collaborative way, Jensen said. "It gives you a place to put a document. It gives you these collaboration services--document check-in and check-out--and you can share calendars and task lists."
"The end user is saying, 'I just want to use Office, I just want to use Outlook--I don't want to learn something new. Let me use what I know how to use.'"
--Nancy McSharry Jensen,
collaboration marketing manager,
Corillian, an online banking services company, began using current SharePoint technologies shortly after Office 2003 was released last year. Greg Hughes, the company's corporate technology manager, said integration with Office has been a key factor in enabling workers to quickly get up to speed with collaboration features such as team work spaces and meeting planning.
"One of the nice things about SharePoint is that it's relatively intuitive; you don't have to do a lot of training," he said. "And the fact that it integrates so well with the Office suite is a big advantage. Information from SharePoint sites can be leveraged into Office applications, so it's there, where people are used to doing their work."
Relying on a familiar set of tools is particularly useful with collaboration, Nemertes' Turek said, because there are bound to be other worker issues with using a collaboration system. Routinely saving documents on a shared server rather than an individual hard drive not only requires fundamental behavioral changes but a shift in attitude.
First, you get people comfortable with tools. Then, you get them to expand their notions of what they should share and whom to share it with, she said.
"Most Americans are a little bit reluctant to share all their information," Turek added. "They don't want to lose ownership of their ideas."
But the approach can be valuable, because "if everything I do is available for everyone else to see, then everything I do has to meet some standard of excellence," she said. "Management really has to lead people into this style of working."
Erik Ryan, product manager, Microsoft
Getting office workers used to collaboration is one thing, but information technology folks also have to support the idea. Building basic SharePoint functionality into Windows Server 2003 means that companies can employ collaboration gradually, starting with basic tools built into the operating system and Office--and adding applications, as their needs increase.
"In the portal space, you're typically told, 'You need an army of consultants to get these things deployed,'" Microsoft's Jensen said. SharePoint "really gives people the ability to provision a self-service site right out of the box...They start using it as a simple file share replacement, and then, they see there are these other services--like discussion groups and shared calendars--that they can ease into."
Gradual, piecemeal employment of SharePoint functions helps distinguish Microsoft from its main competitor in the collaboration/portal/productivity market, IBM's Lotus division, which has made collaboration the centerpiece of its Workplace family of office software.
"IBM--from the time you open the box, they're trying to deliver an environment that has a tremendous amount of functionality for all the things you need to do," analyst Spira said. By contrast, Microsoft puts different functionalities in different containers, "with the ability to cross over and put things together one piece at a time," he said. The advantage there is that buyers using Office "are already partly down that Microsoft road," so it's easier to go the rest of the way.
Incorporating SharePoint functions into the operating system and applications like Office also gives businesses a compelling reason to upgrade to the latest versions of what in most cases are very mature products, Pawlak said.
Microsoft "is trying to keep moving higher up the stack," Pawlak said. "Essentially, simple file sharing is becoming commoditized. Microsoft is trying to find ways to add value and stay competitive. They want to keep bumping up the value that comes with Windows, so they can say, 'You don't get this stuff when you buy (software from Linux distributor) Red Hat.'"
Having SharePoint as part of the operating system also creates a reliable foundation, on which software partners can build applications and services that extend collaboration functions. And that kind of plumbing role--as opposed to running the whole show--appears to be Microsoft's intent, according to analysts and partners.
CorasWorks sells an add-on application for SharePoint that creates a unified environment for using multiple SharePoint sites and related applications. CEO William Rogers said Microsoft has been a supportive, reliable partner.
"I believe they're very much focused on making sure their platform is ubiquitous and that the partners are building the solutions," he said. "Microsoft is not going to sit around and build Web parts--that's not their job. It's up to the partner community to make this approach succeed. It's the solutions the partners sell that are going to drive the deployment of servers."
Turek agreed that Microsoft leaves room for valuable partners in the collaboration stack. "Microsoft has an opportunity here to stake a very big claim in this space," she said. "Part of the way they're doing that is by partnering with ISVs (independent software vendors). They don't want to own everything that has to do with collaboration."
Besides, integrating collaborative functionality totally into the operating system has drawbacks, Pawlak said--most notably that businesses may not know it's there. Even with businesses that have modern versions of Windows Server and Office, SharePoint use is far from a given, he said.
"I don't think the awareness is as good as it needs to be," Pawlak said. "The Microsoft sales force and channel is trying to get word out about what you can do with these products, but it's hard, because the level of complexity is increasing. It's not as simple as saying, 'We've got a spell checker in our application now.'"
Partners help by adding their own efforts to the marketing mix. "That's the whole problem with collaboration: It sounds great, but getting people to use the tools is a real challenge," Pawlak said.