Sunday, 19 October 2008

Sharepoint Summit

Thanks to TFPL, and especially John Davies, for inviting me to their 'Sharepoint Summit' last week. As I said previously, I came to this fighting against a degree of prejudice regarding Sharepoint. My own experience of Sharepoint 2003 had been fairly underwhelming, and the views expressed at Wiki Wednesday had been fairly negative, too.

In many ways my fears proved founded. During the eight or so presentations plenty of weaknesses and limitations were highlighted. I won't go into detail, as James Lappin of TFPL has listed them on Twitter already. Not too surprising, perhaps, as Sharepoint attempts to cover six major information management bases: collaboration, portal, enterprise search, ECM, business processes & forms, business intelligence. It would be pretty surpising if it were best of breed in all these. The trouble is (although not for Microsoft or their certified partners) that IT departments are choosing Sharepoint as the solution to whatever the problem might be, then trying to patch up the deficiencies with widgets, bespoke code, etc. This all takes time and costs money. And it can be very messy. If one message came across loud and clear from the presenters, it was that you must think and plan ahead before implementing Sharepoint. If you don't you can get into a right old pickle.

Call me old-fashioned (actually perhaps new-fashioned is better here), but I thought the new wave of Web 2.0 in the enterprise was about lightweight software, small pieces loosely joined, mashups, emergence and so on. Sharepoint doesn't much sound like any of that to me. Then again, to be fair, I have been focusing mainly on collaboration / knowledge-sharing, which is only one of the six Sharepoint segments. Most of the case studies at this summit involved something more formal - a major intranet, a public website, a hub for integrating information being entered in multiple geographies, a workflow system. But I was left wondering about the wisdom of using Sharepoint for everything instead of picking best-of-breed products. I suppose it's a bit like the old debate about Hi-Fi: do you buy separate speakers, amp and CD player, from different manufacturers, or do you plump for a package from one? The argument for the package was put by Sharon Richardson of Joining Dots. Sharon should know a fair bit about Sharepoint, as she worked for Microsoft from 2000-2006 as Lead Technology Specialist for Sharepoint products in the UK. She took us back to the early '90s - which I am certainly old enough to remember - when Wordperfect was the No 1 word processor and Lotus 123 was the spreadsheet of choice. Word and Excel, she claimed, weren't necessarily better, they just worked better together. And the same argument applies to all the bits of Sharepoint. Well, this is something that jars with me, for two reasons. First, I'm not sure the interoperability of the early Office products was all that stunning, and to the extent that it was, was there not a little issue of some Windows code being concealed from non-Microsoft developers? Second, we're not talking any longer about an office suite of desktop products. The new standard is www (something that Bill G took a little while to 'get', incidentally). It should not be necessary to buy a suite like Sharepoint to get the interoperability and integration you need.

Perhaps I'm being overly negative. As some speakers said, Sharepoint can be tolerably good out of the box for an SME with modest requirements. And if you are a bigger firm which is happy to invest time to customise and extend basic Sharepoint, and prefers to work from a pre-existing platform (ready-made foundations, if you like) rather than build an app. from scratch, it might make sense also. One thing is clear: the Microsoft marketing machine is ensuring that for many companies Sharepoint becomes the one and only migration path for those whose world currently only contains Office, shared drives and Exchange, to one that is Web 2.0 - ish, if not Web 2.0 proper. Whether you like Sharepoint or not, it's going to be hard to ignore it.

Thanks again to TFPL for arranging a great day, and letting us see the warts as well as the beauty.

Friday, 3 October 2008

London Wiki Wednesday and Sharepoint

Wiki Wednesday yesterday was the first I have attended for about 9 months, I think, not least because they were put on ice for a while. Hosted jointly by the BCS North London Branch and Bearingpoint, the initial theme or hook was “Microsoft SharePoint as social media platform - Any chance to fight your IT department when they suggest it?”. This was a topic I did not want to miss, particularly as I shall be attending a one day seminar by TFPL later this month, which will be taking somewhat the opposing view.

David Terrar, organiser of London Wiki Wednesdays, had framed the proposal, and whilst he has his own competing product called Wordframe, I believe he's genuine in his desire to highlight the comparative benefits of not only his own product but of others of similar ilk.

A number of audience members who had had experience of Sharepoint implementations in their own organisations offered their views. There seemed to me to be a consensus that Sharepoint is touted by Microsoft as both 'free' and 'out-of-the-box', but isn't really either of those things. Firstly, a MOSS licence isn't free, and unless you upgrade to MOSS from entry-level Sharepoint you basically only have a document management system and miss out on Web 2.0 tools such as wikis and blogs. It needs a lot of customisation, which can take many man-hours of IT people's time. Someone described it as a toolset rather than a product for end-users. As (I think it was) Andreas Rindler argued, no product will be suitable for deployment in many organisations without any customisation. But with Sharepoint it is not possible for an end-user, for example, simply to add widgets by selecting from a tick-list, as they (allegedly) can with other products.

I must suspend my suspicion that this is all a typical Microsoft lock-in strategy, along the lines of "nobody ever got fired for choosing IBM, no wait, Microsoft", thus giving an easy choice to the IT procurement people, then nice employment for their folk, etc. I must also stop thinking that Sharepoint is a mediocre product, since I haven't touched it for 2 years. I'm looking forward to the TFPL day so I can hear the other side of the story.

For a write up of the rest of the 1st Oct Wiki Wednesday (and there was more good stuff), see here