Two 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.