Is SharePoint Too…?

clip_image001Two great things happened this week. Thing one was that I managed to get my first iOS app deployed to my iPhone. Thing two was receiving an email from a satisfied SharePoint user. I can’t demonstrate the app here, but I can share the entire email with you:

     “Thanks, it’s looking good and easy to navigate

You have to admit, that is one sweet message. Here’s the thing though, the SharePoint solution that is looking good and easy to navigate is a large collection of Data View Web Parts, wired up with a bunch of custom XSL code. Why am bringing these two issues up in the same context? Because of the irony; let me explain.

Both solutions were hand-crafted, and both required about the same amount of code. The reaction I received when I completed the SharePoint solution is the first time one of our employees has used the words “easy” and “navigation” in the same sentence when speaking about SharePoint. On the other hand, I showed five people the iPhone app, and all five simply said “cool!” The iPhone app worked exactly like they expected it would. There are hundreds of thousands of iOS apps out there, and they all share a common and intuitive look and feel. That’s no accident, when I was writing the iOS app, I was following the iOS Human Interface Guidelines as provided by Apple on their Development Support Resource page. It is a well-known fact that if you stray too far from those guidelines, your app will never see a slot in the App Store. My app doesn’t have to be sold in the store, or vetted by Apple, but my users certainly expect an “iPhone experience.” My users never know what to expect from SharePoint.

We have delivered dozens of SharePoint solutions over the course of 5 or 6 years, and almost all of them have been well received by the users who rely on them. We have worked hard to make those solutions effective, efficient and acceptable to our users, but this might be the first time we tried to make a SharePoint solution look cool. SharePoint is big, capable, scalable and largely undefined. I once described SharePoint as vacant office space waiting to be built out the way the new tenants desired. If I had to rewrite that blog post today, I would extend the construction metaphor and add that “sadly, there is no building inspector on duty.” Let’s face it; it is very easy to make SharePoint look like crap. The fact that most of our solutions are out-of-the-box boring is my fault, but Microsoft has been my accomplice. SharePoint, like everything Microsoft owns and offers, has been growing in size, scope and complexity since it was released. Apple drives solutions to the simplicity side of the “Ease of Use” scale while Microsoft seems Hell-bent on extending the difficulty side of the scale.

Somebody recently asked me if I would be switching our users over to Windows Phone7. Seriously? Most of my coworkers jumped at the chance to trade in the Windows Mobile phone I was providing them for free for an iPhone for which I only reimburse them between $15 and $60 a month – oh, I’m one of them! When I asked the person “what possible reason would I have to switch them to Phone7?” they mentioned how well it works with SharePoint. The last thing my users want is to navigate out-of-the-box SharePoint pages on a miniature device. Ironically, the solution that garnered me that awesome email looks great and works perfectly on an iPhone; it looks awesome on an iPad; it just doesn’t look like SharePoint.

When I think about the future of SharePoint, I seriously doubt that any other company will come out with a comprehensive platform (there’s that word) that will dethrone SharePoint as king. That said, I could see a combination of easy to use solutions like Box.net running on phones and tablets putting a serious dent into SharePoint’s market share. We have a vested interest in SharePoint, and in Microsoft, as my reseller likes to point out: “I drank the Kool-Aid years ago.” We use Microsoft solutions for networking, email, voicemail, phone, Office, database and we have recently switched from the software development environment I love (Smalltalk) to Visual Studio. Every solution we have is more complicated than the solution it replaced, but every one offers enough benefit to make the effort worthwhile. Unfortunately, “Simplicity” isn’t in Microsoft’s vocabulary, but I worry that it will be the word of choice of our next generation users. In an attempt to prop up the value of Microsoft solutions, my team and I will continue to work to make those solutions look better than they want to look.

7 thoughts on “Is SharePoint Too…?

  1. If you are not a regular reader of this blog, you should know that my accomplice in building the SharePoint solution I referenced early on is Marc Anderson. Marc spent a couple of days with us earlier this summer showing us how to work in SharePoint’s Middle Tier (as he calls it). If you need a Building Inspector on your SharePoint construction site, he would be a good candidate to consider.

  2. I think you are making the assumption that nothing will change in future versions of SharePoint. How do you know Microsoft isn't aware of these facts and trying to address them?

  3. Obviously, I don't know what Microsoft has planned for the future. I just posted a story from InfoWorld that indicates that maybe they are planning to make changes (http://bit.ly/pykxkk). I hope it is the case, but since we centralized on Micorsoft products in 1999, that hasn't been the track record. Also, even if they are planning to change, I am not convinced that they are going to be able to change fast enough. Microsoft acts more like an aircraft carrier than a destroyer, I don't usually hear the word 'agile' used to describe them.Trust me, I have a lot at stake in Microsoft being able to make the changes necessary to remain relavant. I hope they can do that.

  4. I sent a comment to Dan the other day saying almost the same as him.Basically, I was trying to get some web software I am writing to work under Windows 7 and IIS7.5. What I was doing was something theat I have done tens of times before – the last time was two weeks ago on Windows 2000 Server (yeah right but it works and its small and easy) and it took me 5 minutes to set this software up. After 6 hours I gave up with IIS 7.5 and went with Abyss Server – which is free and took minutes to set up. My comment to Dan was why is it that Microsoft are driving the complexity up whilst Apple are driving it down?As you say over your side of the pond – Go Figure!

  5. David, I am glad you added your experience here. I thought about including a reference to your email, but I am careful not to drag others into my rants.

  6. "Apparently SP2003 to SP2007 was an insignificant improvement? I'd strongly disagree"I would disagree with that statement too! Also, it’s not what I said. I didn’t say that there haven’t been improvements since 1999. I have said, at conferences, at meetings with my boss and with my users, and in this blog 130 times, that SharePoint is an awesome product! I love SharePoint, but that doesn’t mean that it, and many other Microsoft products aren’t getting harder to work with. That’s what this blog is about. Since you bring up 2003 to 2007, I should point out (although I think I mentioned this before in this blog) that we were the first client of our Microsoft Reseller to upgrade to MOSS 2007. We downloaded a copy of the software before they even had a copy from Microsoft. I couldn’t wait one more day to install that version. However, before that day, I had to sit with my Account Rep and go over the matrix of features to see which of our servers had to be upgraded to SharePoint Enterprise and then figure out how many CALs, Enterprise CALs, and SQL Server CALs I had to buy. Microsoft’s desire to satisfy everything from a standalone desktop PC to a Fortune 50 organization adds a level of complexity to everything they sell. I can deal with that – that’s my job, but my users didn’t sign up for it. My point is that I wonder if Microsoft understands that corporate IT isn’t jamming technology down peoples’ throats today. Back in the 1990’s, if I put software on someone’s desktop, they would turn to me and ask “is there any way I can get a copy of this for home?” Today, they are showing me the apps they are using at home and saying “is there any way I can work with this here in the office?” SharePoint 2007 was better than SharePoint 2003. SharePoint 2010 is even better still. We upgraded and, according to some of our vendors, we were among the first to use features like Document Sets and Managed Metadata. I championed those features here on this blog. But there is no denying that during that same time frame, there were many decisions to be made about Standard vs. Enterprise; which flavor Windows 7 to use; Office Standard, Professional or Professional Plus. There has been remarkable progress in all of Microsoft’s products in the past 12 years, but they are NOT getting any easier to use.

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