Guest Opinion

Microsoft Sets Its Sights on Collaboration

Microsoft made several key announcements at PDC that indicate a strong push in the area of collaboration, shoring up many existing holes.

The phrase "Microsoft collaboration strategy" used to be broadly considered something of an oxymoron.

Yes, 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 that include 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, 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 Server for several years.

Several product and strategy updates presented at this year's Tech•Ed suggest Microsoft's collaboration-related capabilities will, between now and the second half of 2006, become much more credible and compelling.

For example, the next release of the SharePoint product family (Windows SharePoint Services and SharePoint Portal Server), code-named "SharePoint V3," is built on a new Windows SharePoint Services foundation. Some key improvements include more advanced content types, major extensions to the SharePoint programming model, and system-wide services for XML syndication (RSS) and search. Other advances include blog and wiki features for asynchronous communication and collaboration, building on the RSS services shared by Windows Vista and IE 7. Another significant announcement: integration with Windows Workflow Foundation (WWF), including a set of SharePoint-related WWF activities. SharePoint is expected to become the most commonly used host for the WWF engine.

Microsoft also announced new server-based capabilities for XML-based forms and Office application-created content. This means 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.

I've noted in the past that Microsoft's collaborative application products lacked a comprehensive and consistent application meta-model, and also entailed the use of multiple developer tools. Depending on the application requirements, developers had to use InfoPath, Office developer tools (VBA), VS.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.

I also noted that organizations using non-Microsoft platforms and applications didn't receive comprehensive collaboration support from Microsoft directly, although third-party vendors such as CASAHL and (then) Groove Networks could accommodate non-Microsoft products.

Groove (acquired by Microsoft in 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).

Overall, Microsoft has made several improvements in the collaboration space, ranging from comprehensive .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" intended to become Microsoft's primary offering for Web content creators. In addition, the product line's widespread use of Windows Presentation Foundation, Windows Communication Foundation, and WWF will result in a much simpler but more powerful and consistent programming model for collaborative apps. Some issues remain, such as if/when/how SharePoint V3 will exploit WinFS.

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, and product categories, as well as a change in the nature of its (historically largely complementary) relationships with vendors such as EMC Documentum, FileNet, and Open Text. 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.

About the Author

Peter O'Kelly is a senior analyst with Burton Group's Application Platform Strategies service. Reach Peter by e-mail at [email protected], or view his blog at

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