Leveraging the Platform

I attended the Perth SharePoint User Group today and we were lucky enough to have Andrew Coates (Microsoft Developer Evangelist) presenting. Before I begin, I’d just like to say what an amazing presenter Andrew is and that hopefully one day people will say those things about me when I’m out Evangelising.

Andrew was presenting something that had been presented at the SharePoint Forum in Sydney titled "Delivering systems that users don’t hate: Why Office and SharePoint will change the way you work". It mainly focused on the Office product suite (Excel, Word, PowerPoint, Outlook) with integration with backend systems and the ease of development in Visual Studio 2008. The presentation was directed at both "Decision Makers" and "Developers" and sold an extremely strong story of "leveraging the Platform".

Confusion in the Ranks

I must admit throughout the presentation I found it confusing because it seemed to contradict the Microsoft Message around SharePoint. SharePoint has been, and will continue to be, a strong Portal Platform – it has been since 2003 edition. Microsoft have marketed this as a "presentation layer" for the organisation for the best part of 5 years to compete against other Portal Vendors such as Oracle, SAP, IBM etc.

The presentation was basically marketing Office Development and to encourage the use of Office products to surface up information from various repositories such as SharePoint, SAP and other ERP, BI, etc. applications.

It does make perfect sense though; one scenario used was around opening an e-mail in Outlook and it intelligently reading the context of the email. The example used was an enquiry around a customer order and showing separate tabs to show customer information, order status, stock information etc. This information came from various backend sources. All things that "you would more than likely go off to separate systems to see", this was the first quote that made me shudder. Why not go to SharePoint for these things? Isn’t that what the Business Intelligence Pillar of the SharePoint stack is for (Dashboards and Reporting Services, Excel Services Integration)?

Where can I find my Information?

My main concern is that by pushing the Information into Office applications, it will obviously look a lot more feature rich and perceivably be faster than any web page in SharePoint. I understand that Office development has been around a lot longer than I’ve been writing code, but this seems like a pretty aggressive marketing push based on the information out there.

Granted AJAX has gone a long way to changing user perception on the speed of the Web Platform interface, but it is still early days here and SharePoint has very little AJAX…take the standard SharePoint Lists Web Part that is screaming for a good AJAX interface for paging through documents etc.

Business Users will be back to the days where they’ll be looking in Outlook for some information (most likely CRM related) and then in Excel for other information (more likely Sales related) and then in the Portal for other information (more likely Documents / Records). So we are back where we started before Portals with disparate systems, but this time they show information from various underlying back end systems rather than all in isolation of each other.

Problems with Office Development

My mad Irish developer sidekick spoke about the joys of Office Development back in the Macro days of 2003 and below. One thing he did explain was the issues of Users assuming this stuff just works, but them having to get involved in knowing about updates to packages. Now there is One-Click deployment, which is apparently Two Clicks according to questions asked in the session due to Certificate issues, to resolve these issues. One thing to bear in mind though is that this does rely on Users being ONLINE.

So what happens if they’re not online for a whole week and then log back in and find the work they’ve been doing on the Word Document Template they had was out of date. The difference with SharePoint is that you HAVE to be online to use the interfaces and those worries are just never even brought into play…Users are used to not having to worry about version changes as it all happens Server Side.

Where does SharePoint fit?

I just think it will bring up the question from the Business of "Why do we need SharePoint"? Immediately everyone relates back to the 6 pillars. Now some of these won’t be relevant if it can be done in Office and most likely quicker due to the overheads of SharePoint and Web development in general (Solutions, Features, Web Parts, BDC).
The strengths of the Web Platform are that it can be made accessible outside of an internal network and does not rely on external Users having Office 2007 Applications on a Windows Operating System.

Microsoft have a Showcase for Office Products and now I can see WHY they renamed SharePoint to "Microsoft Office SharePoint Server"…to make it part of the "Office Family". Business facing sites e.g. office.microsoft.com promote this, but then looking at the developer community it appears to be quite a clear division between Office Application Development and SharePoint Development.

More Resourcing Issues

I can see this as becoming another problem similar to the one mentioned in my Governance post last week. Are Developers now expected to add Office Application Development to their skill set along with everything that Joel Olsen listed before?

Andrew also showed a diagram splitting the Office Systems User base into 3 categories: Business Users, Developers and Professionals (or something similar – it’s not in the slide deck online). Basically the first level was saying standard SharePoint Lists and Web Parts, the second level was InfoPath and the third level was Office Development. I found this quite big statement to make that Office Development is far more superior to SharePoint Development…I guess that’s me just guarding my turf and more importantly making me realise I need to get on top of this too!

The Future

I can see why Microsoft is going down this path…they don’t want to back all their money on a Web Platform…especially with Google aggressively chasing them with Google Apps. By leveraging the user base of the Microsoft Office Suite and tying in the business with it not just as an e-mail program or document editor, but as a way of running their Business Processes it gives them yet another licensing free for all.

I best get my Office Development cap on and start looking at ways of pitching this stuff to the Business before they start trying to write Macros themselves ;-)

<plug>
I’ll be presenting in two months time on SharePoint Governance, unfortunately I don’t think I’ll be a huge sell out crowd like Andrew was…
</plug>

<UPDATE Date=2008/05/22>
I found this post that quotes Steve Ballmer on SharePoint: "It is the "missing link" between personal productivity and line-of-business applications".
So what does this make Office?

</UPDATE>

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