MS Advances in Collaboration, Content Management

Microsoft is poised to make major strides in its collaboration portfolio with SharePoint V3, Office 12, and other offerings. Here''s a review and analysis of the collaboration-related updates from PDC 2005.

The phrase "Microsoft collaboration strategy" used to be broadly considered something of an oxymoron. Microsoft has been successful in enterprise messaging, with Microsoft Exchange, Outlook, and other products, and has recently been gaining momentum with real-time collaboration offerings including Live Meeting, Live Communications Server, and Office Communicator, but the company has generally not been considered a leader in collaborative applications.

The SharePoint updates released in 2003 were significant improvements, as outlined in FTP's October 2003 review of Microsoft's collaboration portfolio (see Resources), but SharePoint hasn't been considered a full-spectrum competitor to market-leading collaboration products, especially IBM Lotus Notes. Microsoft's content management offerings have also been incomplete compared with market leaders in enterprise content management. In another collaborative application-related context, Microsoft has not been successful in workflow tools, despite offering a range of workflow-related services in Office and BizTalk for several years.

Several product and strategy updates presented last week at Microsoft PDC 2005 suggest Microsoft's collaboration-related capabilities will, between now and the second half of 2006, become much more credible and compelling. The rest of this article includes a high-level summary of collaboration-related updates at PDC 2005 along with a review of the Microsoft collaboration challenges I identified in my October 2003 article.

New and/or Improved at PDC 2005
To briefly summarize some of the most significant announcements (see Figure 1):

  • The next release of the SharePoint product family (Windows SharePoint Services and SharePoint Portal Server), now code-named "SharePoint V3," is built on a new Windows SharePoint Services foundation. Some of the key advances include more advanced content types (schemas, e.g., page/form and field/column templates), major extensions to the SharePoint programming model, and system-wide services for XML syndication (RSS) and search.
  • Blog and wiki features for asynchronous communication and collaboration, building on the RSS services shared by Windows Vista and Internet Explorer 7.
  • Integration with Windows Workflow Foundation (WinWF), including a set of SharePoint-related WinWF activities. SharePoint is expected to become the most commonly used host for the WinWF engine.
  • New server-based capabilities for XML-based forms and Office application-created content. This means, for example, developers will be able to use InfoPath forms in browser clients (including non-Microsoft browsers that support Dynamic HTML, such as Firefox and Safari) and also include Excel-based data viewing and analytics tools that previously required the full Excel client.
  • A wide set of new content management-related services and templates, ranging from basic check-in/out to compliance-oriented records management capabilities.

Revisiting Microsoft's Collaboration Challenges
To get a sense of how effectively the PDC 2005 announcements will address earlier Microsoft collaboration-related challenges, we'll next revisit the summary from my October 2003 assessment (in quotations in the following paragraphs).

"First, in order to use all the collaborative capabilities described in this article, you'll need to deploy Office 2003 and Windows Server 2003. Document and Meeting Workspaces aren't available in earlier versions of Office, and Windows SharePoint Services is available exclusively on Windows Server 2003. Microsoft also hasn't indicated if or when the new Shared Workspace features will be available in Office for the Mac OS."

Good news and bad news on this one. The good news: broader Office support for browser clients ("reach clients," augmented with AJAX—asynchronous JavaScript and XML—capabilities) means non-Microsoft clients (operating system and browser) can participate in collaborative solutions built on Office and SharePoint. The bad news: some of the new features will require Office 12 (the next major release of Office, due in the second half of 2006), and you'll probably want Windows Vista as well, for many of its new visualization and interaction features. Windows XP SP2 and Windows Server 2003 are the entry points for Microsoft collaboration-related rich client and server platforms, but the tools will "light up" better with Vista and Office 12. Microsoft has also not announced any details about if or when Mac Office will catch up with Windows Office for communication/collaboration-related features.

"Second, Microsoft's collaborative application products lack a comprehensive and consistent application meta-model, and also entail the use of multiple developer tools. Depending on the application requirements, developers might need to use InfoPath, Office developer tools (VBA), Visual Studio .NET, browser-based SharePoint tools, and FrontPage. In contrast, IBM Lotus Notes/Domino has a unified and deep collaborative application meta-model and integrated developer tools."

Lots of improvements here, ranging from comprehensively .NET-based programmability in Office (Visual Studio Tools for Office and Visual Studio for Applications) to much more elaborate template and schema capabilities in SharePoint v3. FrontPage will be largely repositioned as the SharePoint design tool, with Microsoft's new Expression "Quartz Web Designer" designed to become Microsoft's primary offering for Web content creators. In addition, the product-line–wide use of Windows Presentation Foundation, Windows Communication Foundation, and Windows Workflow Foundation will result in a much simpler but more powerful and consistent programming model for collaborative applications. There are also some still open issues, such as if/when/how SharePoint V3 will exploit WinFS.

"Third, you'll encounter challenges working across firewalls and Network Address Translation (NAT) devices, as well as when working with disparate identity/authentication/access control models. These are all areas where Groove can complement Microsoft's products."

Good news here as well, as Microsoft plans to exploit IPv6 and other technologies to simplify cross-firewall and –NAT deployments. The significantly expanded support for browser-based clients will also be a big help in this context.

"Fourth, you'll experience temporary functional downgrades: For example, Office Live Communication Server 2003 is a point-to-point service exclusively, while Exchange 2000 Conferencing was a multiparty service. The hosted Microsoft Office Live Meeting service already supports multiparty conferencing (for up to 2,500 participants), and Microsoft will support enterprise-managed multiparty conferencing eventually as well. But, for the moment, organizations using Exchange 2000 Conferencing for multiparty conferencing don't have an upgrade or migration path."

Microsoft didn't introduce pricing/licensing details at PDC 2005, but the vibrant competition in communication/collaboration market segments will almost certainly lead to continued price pressure.

"Fifth, organizations using non-Microsoft platforms and applications won't receive comprehensive collaboration support from Microsoft directly, although third-party vendors such as CASAHL and Groove can accommodate non-Microsoft products."

Groove (acquired by Microsoft during March 2005) now has a more strategic role in Microsoft's collaboration portfolio, and key Microsoft partners such as CASAHL continue to expand the scope of their offerings. Importantly, especially for customers requiring IBM Lotus Notes-style offline capabilities, SharePoint V3 and Office 12 will offer a variety of services for seamlessly taking collaborative content and applications offline (and later resynchronizing with server-based resources).

"Finally, Microsoft's weblog (blog) strategy is yet to be defined. Blogs are useful for channel-oriented communication and collaboration, but to date, Microsoft has deferred implicitly to third-party software vendors such as NewsGator."

Microsoft will add pervasive support for RSS during the second half of 2006, ranging from Internet Explorer 7 and Outlook 12 as RSS clients to RSS syndication options for SharePoint lists, documents, and other resources. Microsoft also mentioned plans for wiki-related features at PDC 2005, but details are still forthcoming.

Microsoft is poised to make major strides in its collaboration portfolio with SharePoint V3, Office 12, and related tools, services, and frameworks. It's also likely to cause a product category-level shift in the content, document, workflow management product categories, changing the nature of its (historically largely complementary) relationships with vendors such as EMC Documentum, FileNet, and OpenText. The primary communication/collaboration/content competitive context, however, will continue to be between IBM and Microsoft. Organizations will benefit from the intense collaboration-focused competition between IBM and Microsoft, as their respective products continue to evolve rapidly.