Thursday, September 2, 2010

SharePoint is Like Gravity

There has been a lot written about SharePoint and how it changed the world of enterprise content management. SharePoint became the gorilla in ECM and, according to some pundits, other ECM companies should have been long dead. And yet the market is active like never before. Well, here are some of my personal thoughts and observations about SharePoint (this is not an official message from my employer and I am sure that some of my colleagues have different opinions):

1.SharePoint’s goal was to connect Office desktops:
Microsoft Office is the gold standard for office applications. However, most ‘knowledge workers’ failed to notice any new features since the Office 97 release. And with OpenOffice and other free applications, it is becoming difficult to justify the pricey upgrades for Office every 3 years. Microsoft likely knew that and built SharePoint as a way to add stickiness to Office applications by providing a seamlessly integrated way to share Office documents across groups of users. The concept was brilliant and it worked! And the fact that the office documents from SharePoint can fill up SQL Servers much faster than most other applications was an added bonus.

2.SharePoint’s success was a surprise:
I suspect that Microsoft never expected the success SharePoint would become. While Microsoft keeps piling up a ton of money every quarter, there are not many billion-dollar products throughout the software industry and yet SharePoint is apparently one of them. While I’m sure that every Microsoft business plan includes a hockey stick-shaped revenue chart, I doubt that Microsoft expected the viral success of SharePoint. The fact that SharePoint is usually deployed in hundreds of sites across the enterprise suggests that Microsoft didn’t expect it to be rolled out enterprise-wide but rather in departments. Correct me if I’m wrong.

3.SharePoint is like gravity:
Gravity is a pesky thing. Many problems would be much easier to solve if we could switch off gravity at least temporarily. But gravity is here and while we could complain about it every day, it is better to just accept it and move on. For the ECM vendors, SharePoint is like gravity. Yeah, life used to be simpler without it but it is here and we need to deal with it and move on. Today, SharePoint is to be expected in a majority of our customers just as we expect Exchange. Sure, there are some customers that don’t run Exchange but most of them do. Let’s move on.

4.SharePoint commoditized parts of the ECM market:
Yes, there are parts of ECM such as document management and collaboration that have been significantly impacted by SharePoint’s success. Those markets have been commoditized and the players have either evolved or became extinct. Moving up the stack is a Darwinian fact of life in the software business and every vendor who wants to survive more than a couple of releases has to adapt.

5.SharePoint isn’t free (even though that was some great marketing!):
Microsoft introduced SharePoint with brilliant messaging and one of the key messages was the notion that it was free. That has created a high demand which combined with the viral nature of the product propelled SharePoint to its initial success. Today, nobody really believes that SharePoint is free but that image has become an attribute of the SharePoint brand.

6.SharePoint has popularized ECM:
With its integration to Office, SharePoint has popularized the concepts of content management for the broad population of knowledge workers. Before SharePoint, content management was mostly reserved for specialty roles dealing with publishing, records-keeping, or high-value authoring (CAD, Photoshop, etc.). Today everyone gets the idea of content sharing, access privileges, and collaboration. SharePoint has popularized ECM and many of the users will evolve their needs to require some of the more specialized applications – which leads to increased demand for other vendors. Rising tide lifts all boats - at least those that don’t capsize.

7.It’s better to partner with Microsoft than to compete with them:
While Microsoft competes on many fronts with many companies, a typical ECM software vendor (between $100-1,000 million in revenue) is chump change that will be outmuscled by the sheer market presence and power of Microsoft. It is therefore advisable to figure out a strategy that allows the vendor to leverage SharePoint rather than to compete with it head on.

8.Mobility might change the SharePoint dynamic:
It’s no secret that Microsoft is currently investing heavily in its mobile platform, in an attempt to catch the train that has departed with Apple, Google, and RIM aboard. Microsoft has plenty of muscle to get into the game – they did it with the Xbox gaming console. But until that happens, the mobility story around SharePoint remains uncertain. The current trend indicates that the presence of Apple and Google smartphones in the enterprise will keep growing and that may relegate SharePoint to remain what it has been designed for – Office infrastructure rather than a comprehensive ECM solution.

9.SharePoint can’t do everything:
No matter how aggressively marketed, SharePoint is not the answer to all ECM problems. There are many problems that SharePoint either does not address at all or that it is not the best offering for. There are even new types of content management problems that SharePoint created. The reality in most enterprises is that there are many different types of applications that create, use, or consume content and SharePoint is simply one of them. Others include email, ERP systems, existing file servers, web sites, intranet sites, portals, other ECM solutions. It’s good to be a provider of one of these content applications or a vendor that can make all of it consistent through common policies and taxonomies. Or both.

SharePoint is an impressive success story. It has changed the game for ECM vendors and those, who have figured out how to leverage its success, prosper.

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