Friday, June 24, 2011

Is Microsoft SharePoint the next Lotus Notes? (an Enterprise 2.0 conference impression)

The tone of SharePoint-related presentations I attended at the 2011 Enterprise 2.0 Boston conference (#e2conf) makes me wonder if Microsoft SharePoint is destined to become the industry's next Lotus Notes.

Some déjà vu dimensions: SharePoint is very widely used, but, as with Notes, in a previous generation (in the mid to late 1990s), SharePoint is considered by many people to be:

  • Of limited "out of the box" utility
  • Difficult to deploy and customize
  • Not “best of breed” for specific capabilities (e.g., for SharePoint: blogs, wikis, activity streams, and discussion forums; for Notes, out-of-the-box document management and workflow were considered less than best-of-breed), or, in general, for user interface/user experience
  • A platform that is often complemented by 3rd-party solutions, for some popular collaborative/social domains (e.g., NewsGator for activity streams in conjunction with SharePoint)
  • A slow-to-evolve product, managed as more of a traditional enterprise software development project than a frequently-updated Internet-centric product or service
  • A steep and long learning curve; as with Notes, there are many useful capabilities in SharePoint (e.g., Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, Access, and Visio services), which I suspect relatively few developers have explored at this point
  • Frankly a bit boring…  As one snapshot, the large Microsoft exhibit space at the E2.0 event seemed to be sparsely visited, even though it was located at the entrance of the exhibit hall (and included an Xbox/Kinect system)

In another pattern that's consistent with Notes market dynamics of the 1990s, many Microsoft partners and competitors are implicitly trying to relegate SharePoint to a limited role, e.g., as a basic document-centric intranet server that's merely one of many information repositories that can be extended with a variety of social services, or as a cost-effective solution for some basic collaboration and content services, but one that requires third-party services for archival or compliance concerns.


The tone during a "Social Strategies for SharePoint" breakout session Tuesday afternoon was especially negative, with the speakers and several audience members expressing frustration with what they perceive as social software limitations in SharePoint.  A Microsoft product manager in the audience spoke up at one point, but unhelpfully came across as frustrated and defensive, and explained that Microsoft's product planning approach is to design products for a very wide range of customers, not just for a subset of specific usage scenarios.


On a more positive theme, Microsoft has been successful in using SharePoint to displace Lotus Notes in many organizations worldwide, so the platform-centric Notes analogy is not entirely negative.  And, although many people probably agree with Real Story Group President Tony Byrne that "SharePoint happens" – that SharePoint is an inevitable part of day-to-day reality for many people – SharePoint is also, by most measures (e.g., market share, revenue growth, synergy with other Microsoft products), a very successful product, and one poised to gain more momentum with the imminent launch of Office 365.  As another consideration, even aspects that some people perceive to be SharePoint limitations and idiosyncrasies are positive to others in the SharePoint ecosystem, as they essentially serve as a full-employment act for SharePoint administrators, application developers, and professional service providers.


2011 is likely to be a pivotal year for SharePoint.  If it stays on its current Notes-like trajectory, it will continue to be a pervasive but relatively horizontal and low-level platform for collaborative applications and content.  If SharePoint is to instead move beyond a basic platform role and become the environment in which information workers are productively and happily engaged for all of their collaboration/social needs, Microsoft will have to make some difficult decisions and strategic investments, in order to leapfrog its social software/service competitors.


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