The Problems SharePoint Solved

aka A Case Against Branding
By Owen Baern

We’ve All Been There – Anyone involved with SharePoint in any meaningful way knows the look that people get when you start trying to explain what you do – that “deer trapped in the headlights / what ARE you talking about” look. You’re at a party and someone asks what you do for a living – I’ve actually started finding myself brushing past the question, in order to get onto topics that are less fraught with frustration, both for me and the individual posing the question. But over this recently past holiday season, I began giving this some thought. If someone were truly interested, how could I explain what I do? I came up with what I’ll call a Really Brief History of Collaborative Technology.

The Bad Old Days – Let’s say you’re a VP in a fairly large company, at the turn of the turn of the century. You need to collaborate with a small group of individuals on a set of documents, a list of the individuals involved in the project, and a calendar of the various meetings you all need to be involved in. Let’s also assume that yours is a company that has a need of confidentiality, maybe there is a threat of legal action, or perhaps you are concerned about intellectual property issues. Consequently, you decide your company can’t use any publicly-available, generic web application. Since this is ten years ago, you go to the head of your IT department and say “here’s what we need – make it so!” And your IT department then goes and spends some money hiring consultants or starts burning internal man-hours. They develop this application, probably in ASP, not .net (remember, not around quite yet). The application, we’ll call it CustomCollab, has a login screen, a calendar, it has some upload/download functionality, it has a contact list, it even has the company logo along the top of the page. This new application is even somewhat secure. Later on, CustomCollab is rolled out to the intranet.

This is the Wheel… No, THIS is the Wheel – Now imagine there are hundreds and hundreds of companies re-inventing this wheel, over and over again – each with a different interface, each with different rules as to how users interact with the code, each with their own quirks.
Furthermore, let’s say you, as the VP of that company ten years ago, decide to leave the company that’s invented CustomCollab and go to a new company. If you’re lucky, you only have to learn how to use a different custom collaboration solution (if you’re not lucky, you’ll have to weigh whether or not you want to push another set of IT professionals to re-invent the wheel again).

Here and Now – This is the problem SharePoint solved! We now have a standard, albeit imperfect, collaboration platform with degrees of security that can be enabled based on your company’s need. We no longer need to re-invent the wheel. We’re not wasting man-hours developing solutions that have already been developed and employees are no longer wasting time learning specific collaborative applications developed for only one company.
In ten years from now, I’m pretty sure we’ll have a workforce that’s mostly comfortable with SharePoint. Imagine going into a company, knowing the technology that drives collaboration.

So Why Brand? – Given this history, why would you take away one of the strengths of SharePoint? Specifically, why would you take away the ease with which a new employee can use your SharePoint –based system because he or she has experience with SharePoint from their previous employer? Just to be clear, I’m talking only about internal use within a company – not SharePoint driving a public web site. Let’s face it – SharePoint’s interface isn’t terribly “sexy,” but it wasn’t meant to be. I’m going out on a bit of a limb here, but I think that the intent of the SharePoint interface was to normalize the interface of the collaborative application.

Why Not Brand? – Having written the above, it may come as a shock to know that I’m a huge fan of branding. (I come to SharePoint with experience as a web designer.) SharePoint reveals itself in the browser through CSS. This is only becoming truer as we follow the evolution into SharePoint Server 2010. Want to know how to get rid of the QuickLaunch by just adding a content editor webpart? Add some CSS code. Want to get rid of the generic look of SharePoint and replace it with your company’s color scheme? Duplicate and modify the CSS.

Either way you go, it’s an exciting time to be involved with SharePoint.