Sharepoint, Salesforce and the enterprise platform battle

The largest software company in the world and the 'no software' cloud world are colliding, and in the perceptions battle Sharepoint are shining a lot brighter
Written by Oliver Marks, Contributor

At the beginning of this week I spent some time with Jared Spataro, Senior Director of SharePoint Product Management at Microsoft and the public face of the eleven year old 'Collaboration Software for the Enterprise' product, while on Thursday morning I attended the San Francisco edition of 'CloudForce', the spring Salesforce developer event.

While my 45 minutes with Jared in a Microsoft conference room is an unfair comparison to the full court press Salesforce lay on in giant rock tour like segments around the planet, this is a very intriguing time to be involved in enterprise software and some interesting parallels and studies in contrasts came up.

Being in the presence of Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff is akin to the experience of being around the late Steve Jobs: Benioff exudes confidence, charisma and a sense that the world is inevitably going to be Salesforce's, with a few 'co-opetition' (Marc's word in a Q&A session today) relationships with other lesser enterprise vendors also serving their clients.

Microsoft have always been late to the game historically given their 'biggest software company on the planet' status giving them the heft and finances to roll up 'best of breed' innovation in the past, but are now aware that 'the clock speed has got faster' to quote Jared (who was previously at OpenText, the giant Enterprise Content Management behemoth).  The three year version release cycle for Sharepoint means that the next version will probably be named 2013 and will be being installed in 2014. Jared showed me Windows 8 running on a Samsung slate with the Metro user interface looking good in the applications he showed me. (I'm well aware of the desktop/Metro issues which have already been much discussed).  Today is new iPad delivery day in the USA for those that ordered as soon as it was announced, shipping direct from factories in China. Meanwhile Microsoft mobile are in a Google style Beta roll out for interested parties with the final product being due in a fall timeframe.

The old guard 'MISO' (MSFT, IBM, SAP, Oracle) in the software world have a couple of major issues going forward: one, the astrology like cycles of product releases and two, legacy support and perceptions. Even though Salesforce got going in 1999, a couple of years before Sharepoint was launched, they are now on trajectory that feels near real time in their constant momentum and character.

Much of the old guard, despite their various efforts to continue to support their cash cow legacies while moving in to the modern era, often have a feeling of their launch events being like the occurrence of a lunar eclipse (which occur every other year or every third year) - a rare, anticipated event.

While I'm having fun with astrological analogies, the current rare alignment of Venus and Jupiter (seen above) reaching their closest today over North America is a little like the current adjacency between Salesforce and SAP, a topic which came up a lot today during Benioff's headliner performance at Cloudforce. The ever changing symbiotic relationships in the enterprise software world between vendors are in reality ultimately a battle for control. Salesforce want the front end (and are currently succeeding spectacularly) while letting SAP continue to HANA-ize archaic back ends and make them the api accessible. My former Sovos Group business colleague Sameer Patel (whose initials are SAP!) has just joined SAP - who understandably want the whole enchilada - to drive their Enterprise Collaboration and Social Software 'Solutions'.

Meanwhile Benioff and his cohorts would like us to believe that the business world are moving forward to a bright new day, wanting to ultimately leave the old guard in the past. Microsoft's Spataro told me they are now getting serious about 'putting people at the center of business' emphasizing an 'experience component' based on the Microsoft platform.

Historically Sharepoint, which I regularly work with on a collaboration strategy consulting basis with end user clients, is in my experience primarily used as digital filing cabinets to store documents created in Microsoft Office, a historically brilliant end to end content creation and storage business model. In Microsoft's new world they too are moving to online hosting with Microsoft 365 (whose seat licenses were lowered this week) - it seems inevitable that the next generation of Sharepoint will contain major hosted components and cloud updates.

The challenge for Microsoft customers is the 'feet in both camps' (on premise and  online) syndrome. Sharepoint is hugely successful for governance and compliance reasons, but the inefficiencies of the archaic document centric ways in which accountants and legal professionals work together is the weakest link in the enterprise collaboration chain, but also continues to be a very powerful one.

The regulatory satisfaction chain is a very conservative legacy offline world with many dependencies, just as many enterprise computing back ends are archaic but doing the job under agreed licensing, maintenance contracts and depreciation ...so why upgrade the legal business processes or the back end technology, goes the decision maker logic. Historically great repositories of records are stored in case of the need for formal discovery or audit. These are the rules of the enterprise universe which are currently immutable. there are plenty of old 90s era SAP R/2 mainframe back ends out there working away as I write this, formally fully supported by SAP even as they focus their energies on their HANA in-memory future.

The challenge for today's enterprise inhabitants planning their future workflows, while working with past foundations and commitments, is what is going to work best for them going forward. MISO is what millions of people know professionally, and yet our connected and largely borderless online world (outside of language and culture) now has fundamentally different requirements.

Despite the bum information deluge that is the info overcrowded internet, the endless flowing river of buzzwords, posturing and pontification from a wide assortment of utopian futurists, crystal ball gazers and enterprise astrologists, the obvious reality is that enterprise customer needs are changing rapidly. Sorting out the business value from the shiny objects and hype isn't getting any easier amongst all this noise, but then it never does in the moment...

The crowded mid market of collaboration vendors has divided out into point solutions with varying degrees of interoperability and success, and there are plenty of opportunities for tactical use in departments, divisions and of course the small and medium sector. The bigger game is playing out at an enterprise scale and is for much larger stakes - the reason the current large VC funding rounds to back a variety of players at this crucial stage of the game have occurred (and of course Jive software's IPO).

Microsoft are now finally starting to react to all this, using the 'S' word (the fuzzy logic 'social') which means so many different things to many different people.  Salesforce have already blasted off with their well defined and communicated with high production values 'Social Enterprise' messaging and appear to be having an increasing impact on the enterprise psyche as defining and being at the forefront of the 'cloud and mobile revolution'. The question is whether Microsoft will be able to step up with the market as it matures and maintain their place at center of the enterprise universe. While the relationships between other enterprise vendors is still somewhat symbiotic for now Microsoft and Salesforce appear to be clearly opposing forces.

I attended the last Sharepoint conference in Irvine California (main sponsor Blackberry, the mobile email smartphone company…) on my own travel dollar, an annual event with 8,000 developers from all over the world. Todays' Salesforce event had almost 20K signed up on site with a huge audience consuming information through video and interacting online. It seems likely the fall Dreamforce will be in a sports stadium to cope with demand. Microsoft did a terrific job with their past state of the art Dreamforce style online 'Mix' events - I wrote this glowing review on ZDNet of their '09 edition way back then - but they've cancelled that momentum builder and have currently vague plans for a fall 2012 edition of their 'Build' event, which was disappointing last fall in comparison to Mix's previous production values and energy.

On the current trajectory it's not hard to imagine a Super Bowl-like Dreamforce extravaganza in AT&T park and the streets of San Francisco overshadowing the coming-out-of-beta party for Microsoft. Despite their heft Microsoft can ill afford to be on the dark side of the moon in their cycle as the always on real time glare of the connected enterprise constellation expands at an ever faster pace…


The Venus and Jupiter conjunction  seen from France this week. Photograph National Geographic by Laurent Laveder

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