For being the fastest growing server product at Microsoft, SharePoint is still largely misunderstood. There's no question its one of Microsoft's most important enterprise products, contributing more than $1 billion to the company's coffers. Yet, as CEO Steve Ballmer himself acknowledged this week, SharePoint an "unsung hero."
In part, SharePoint is unsung because it's a complex and ambitious product. It's not just a content management system or an enterprise social-networking product, or an intranet search system. It's six different servers bundled into a single back-end for Microsoft Office. There are thousands of Microsoft employees working on 40 different teams contributing to the product. It has provided system integrators, consultants and other partners with a lot of business because it has been tricky to deploy, maintain and customize.
(As my ZDNet blogging colleague David Greenberg noted this week, it's not the cost of SharePoint server and the associated client-access licenses that are the biggest ticket items. He noted that a new InfoTrends survey found the biggest SharePoint-related expenditures were servers and storage, deployment/assessment services, development/maintenance services, i/o hardware (e.g. scanners, MFPs), and additional software.)
The SharePoint team is working on the fourth iteration of SharePoint, known as SharePoint 2010, which is due out mid-year next year. Microsoft has been privately alpha and beta testing SharePoint 2010 with a select group. Next week, starting on October 19, more than 7,000 SharePoint resellers, admins, users and analysts are convening in Las Vegas for the SharePoint Conference 2009 event to hear more details about the 2010 release.
I've been attempting to keep close tabs on SharePoint ever since I heard Ballmer liken SharePoint, in terms of infrastructural importance, to Windows. SharePoint has become one of those middle-tier products that gets its tentacles into everything in many a Microsoft shop. (And soon will be gaining even more arms, since SharePoint is the back-end powering the business versions of Microsoft's forthcoming Office Web Apps.)
With the 2010 release, Microsoft is rounding out SharePoint's features and tools to make it even more of a true "platform" play.
"When you look at the key areas of investment in SharePoint 2010, the very first one that we will tend to highlight next week is the fact that SharePoint -- while it's always been developed as a platform -- in SharePoint 2010 you will see it truly blossom forth as a developer platform," Stephen Elop, President of the Microsoft Business Division, told me. "We have invested a tremendous amount to make it easier for developers to build applications on the SharePoint environment, to integrate SharePoint with other back-end systems and other business applications. We've taken steps to make sure that development tools, with which developers are familiar, Visual Studio being the obvious example, are integrated well with SharePoint."
"So, it's absolutely the case that we think about SharePoint both as a collection of applications that can be tailored for your use, but it's also the underlying platform upon which those applications have been built," Elop said.
When I asked Elop what he thought differentiated the SharePoint team from others at the company, he highlighted the team's focus on customers. I know every team at Microsoft says it is focused on customers, but after talking to some of the SharePoint folks, I'd say that focus nearly borders on obsession. The fact that SharePoint isn't in a monopoly position and has a wide range of formidable competitors is driving the team, as well, I'd say.
Over the past few weeks, I've been interviewing a number of key members of the SharePoint team to try to get a better handle on what's made the product tick and what Microsoft is planning to do to increase sales of it, going forward. Over the next few days, I'm planning a series of posts detailing what I learned.
Come back Monday for more about SharePoint 2010 and how/why Microsoft is building, packaging and selling the product the way it does. In the interim, feel free to post any SharePoint questions you're hoping to have answered.