Redmond Review

Bridging the Document-Data Divide

The Microsoft SharePoint Conference (SPC) 2009 event defied the tough economic times. With more than 7,400 attendees, SPC eclipsed the size of this year's Tech•Ed and MIX confabs combined. Walking around the Mandalay Bay Convention Center in Las Vegas, where the conference was held, it was hard to believe that a recession was still going on. Enthusiasm was high, content was plentiful and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer even avoided discussing the down economy-a staple of his keynote addresses this year. That's because economic gravity just doesn't seem to apply to the SharePoint product line.

Corporations everywhere have adopted SharePoint as their portal, collaboration and content management platform, using it for functions as mundane as file storage and as complex as analytics, score carding, records retention, process approval workflow and regulatory compliance. Customers are getting hooked, and Microsoft has made SharePoint a key pillar in its Business Intelligence, Software Development, Enterprise Search and Cloud/Internet strategies. (I discussed SharePoint's impact on Redmond's Internet strategy in detail in the October installment of Redmond Review, "A Winning Campaign: Remain in Office.")

The festive environment notwithstanding, I left SPC a couple days early so I could get back to New York City in time to attend the Windows 7 launch event, which was also keynoted by Steve Ballmer. The timing of these keynotes, just 72 hours apart, is not coincidental: SharePoint is well on its way to joining Office and Windows as a product that is entrenched in-and crucial to-corporate computing operations. It may also be well on its way to becoming a cash cow on the same scale as those two products. There's a long way to go, but the trajectory looks right.

What's really important to consider is why SharePoint is becoming so central to Microsoft and its customers. I've said for many years that in software, virtually all business applications are database applications. So why is a document-centric application like SharePoint turning into such an important business platform?

A Structured Environment
I'm still forming my opinion, but I think the answer comes down to this: when SharePoint is implemented in an organization, documents become data. Proposals and invoices in Word, financial statements and sales forecasts in Excel, meeting agendas in OneNote and pitchbook presentations in PowerPoint become indexed and searchable. Internal subsets of their content become directly readable and even updateable, and their metadata can be conformed to-and utilized by-business processes and workflows.

Microsoft morphed the paid version of SharePoint from a portal server in 2003 to an Office server in 2007 and will soon anoint it as a general server in 2010. In doing so, Microsoft has recognized that the SharePoint Web infrastructure can take documents-something the company once disparagingly referred to as "unstructured" data-and provide a consistent framework and organization to them. This is something that can't be done when documents are distributed across individual users' hard drives.

This facilitates collaboration, discoverability, rigor in process and synergistic connection to the more conventional, relational data sources that SharePoint 2010 will provide. Meanwhile, the legacy desktop platform of Windows and Office is still utilized for the creation and editing of documents themselves, including in a disconnected, offline fashion. The desktop's importance is retained even as new Web browser versions of Office apps enable reviewing and light editing of documents when users are away from their PCs.

SharePoint is enabling self-service applications, workflow and content management because it's following in the tradition of Office, which has for 20 years facilitated self-service creation of the underlying content. Microsoft is enabling this. Users are taking to it. And the Internet, rather than disrupting it, makes it shine.

Where does this leave developers? Why doesn't a self-service framework strip them of opportunity? Because when users can do more for themselves, they build a foundation, upon which they still need developers to implement bigger things, of higher value. That's why Visual Studio 2010 will have unprecedented support for SharePoint development. That's why SharePoint 2010 will support REST, and JavaScript and LINQ and rich object models as developer interfaces. And that's why so many of the 7,400-plus people in Las Vegas were developers.

About the Author

Andrew Brust is Research Director for Big Data and Analytics at Gigaom Research. Andrew is co-author of "Programming Microsoft SQL Server 2012" (Microsoft Press); an advisor to NYTECH, the New York Technology Council; co-moderator of Big On Data - New York's Data Intelligence Meetup; serves as Microsoft Regional Director and MVP; and is conference co-chair of Visual Studio Live!

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