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Google’s Wave is building off the enterprise shore

Google’s Wave (http://wave.google.com) is a Swiss Army knife of communication and information management services. What most pundits have downplayed is the potential for Google to wear down certain market barriers. In the consumer market, Google has had no answer to the surging growth of Facebook.com or the microblogging phenomenon Twitter.com. But there’s another granite cliff standing between Google and significant revenue: Microsoft SharePoint. The Google Wave may be the digital force needed to grind down the SharePoint barrier. Google wants to tap into the billions of dollars Microsoft has in its enterprise market.

A thesaurus lists dozens of synonyms for a wave. Among them are the overworked tsunami, the military-esque surge, and the surf bunnies’ tube. The most apt metaphor may be the unrelenting force of waves that erodes even the toughest rocks and walls. Waves just keep coming, and over time little can withstand their pounding.

Will this happen to Microsoft? Let’s reflect a moment.

Rewind: late May 2009. Google hosted one of its developer conferences. After giving the faithful a free Google Android phone, the company announced its Wave platform. At the same time, Microsoft tossed its new search engine Bing into the Internet ocean and created a ripple. You can find developer information about Wave here: http://code.google.com/apis/wave.

Wave met ripple and Google’s Wave crashed over the Google Web surfers, and the howls of glee drowned out the foam and swell of Bing, Microsoft’s most recent weapon in the Web search wars. Google’s market share is about 70 percent and Microsoft’s, about eight percent, according to comScore, a consultancy tracking the sector.

Most reports about Wave missed one key feature that seemed obvious to me: Wave is Google’s most Microsoft-like product. In fact, Googlers described the Wave platform with terms plucked from the SharePoint marketing collateral—for example, electronic mail, collaboration and real-time information among colleagues or a group.

Google said: "Google Wave is a product that helps users communicate and collaborate on the Web. A ‘wave’ is equal parts conversation and document, where users can almost instantly communicate and work together with richly formatted text, photos, videos, maps and more. Google Wave is also a platform with a rich set of open APIs that allow developers to embed waves in other Web services and to build extensions that work inside waves."

I want to explain why Wave is another component in Google’s attack on Microsoft’s enterprise fortress.

First, Wave’s rolling in at the same time as Microsoft’s unveiling of its latest weapon in its battle with Google for Web search market share was no coincidence. Just as Google had set up cross currents to dampen eBay’s purchase of StumbleUpon several years ago and Google’s near concurrent news about Google public data that rained on the Wolfram Alpha beach party, Google’s Wave sent a wall of hoopla over Bing. That publicity focused on a platform, not a search engine. Keep in mind that each of Google’s products and services are search-ready. Search is part of the DNA of Google, not an add-on.

Second, Wave duplicates the functionality of Microsoft’s enterprise collaboration, messaging, content and search platform. Microsoft SharePoint is a billion-dollar product, and it has more than 100 million licenses in organizations worldwide. Microsoft itself has positioned SharePoint as the glue that binds essential work functions to the Microsoft server and desktop software.

For example, SQL Server beats at the heart of thousands of organizations. SharePoint taps that data management system to create a need for both products, and then offers other products such as Microsoft Exchange to extend the functionality of SharePoint. SharePoint, therefore, provides content finding and creating tools that allow Microsoft Certified Partners to sell security servers, Internet servers and more than 40 other types of specialized and expensive enterprise server components to build an organization’s information infrastructure.|

SharePoint has become an information operating system, and that technology has been embraced by groups as diverse as youth outreach associations to the U.S. military. The idea is simple: Workers want to create, share, find and interact with content. Those core functions are exactly the functions that Google has put in Wave.

Third, Wave is positioned as open source. SharePoint, on the other hand, is proprietary. A company developing an extension for SharePoint has little chance of financial success unless it becomes a certified Microsoft partner. Google’s approach is to throw open the door of opportunity to anyone who takes the time to sign up for a free Google account.

SharePoint is a complicated software system. Some parts have been produced by Microsoft’s formidable technical engine, which first became available as Site Server in 1997. Today’s SharePoint is an amalgamation of Web Document Authoring and Versioning, an application server, a digital dashboard, the nCompass content management system purchased in 2001 and dozens of other components. As I write this, SharePoint’s roots reach back more than 12 years. Wave, however, is a platform built with more modern technology and little more than a framework.

What do those differences mean?

The most obvious mismatch is technology. Google’s quasi-open source approach is designed to allow developers to create large and small components for Wave. Google does the basics, and, for now, seems to be willing to let those with an interest in Google technology shape the system.

As a consequence of that open approach, Google benefits because individual developers cannot be controlled in the way that Microsoft’s SharePoint product managers shape the product or in the way Microsoft’s certification process for developers and resellers governs SharePoint’s direction. Predicting what applications will be developed for Wave is difficult. Google itself does not know. Not surprisingly, the critics who point out that the Wave platform is a work in progress, immature and incomplete may overlook the disruptive nature of Google’s Wave strategy. Disruption is the point. Google, after all, has no legacy revenue tied to a collaboration platform. Microsoft does, which raises the stakes for Microsoft with little risk or cost to Google.

Another difference is that SharePoint is an older platform, onto which newer, more demanding functions have been added. The complexity of SharePoint comes not from the individual operations, which are at this time well understood by corporate information technology departments. The Rube Goldberg nature of SharePoint comes from the interaction among many moving parts in a fluid environment. One example will make that complexity evident. SharePoint, with roots in the late 1990s, is a legacy application. As other units of Microsoft move forward with newer technologies such as the Windows 7 operating system, SharePoint and the supported versions have to be made compatible and stable.

The cost of keeping enterprise applications up and running must be measured in terms of time and money. Time means that development is slow, often weeks or months for a simple bug fix or hours or days of work to configure SharePoint to index local content and information on third-party applications. Money in terms of the staff training, problem solving and coding workarounds for unexpected problems. Add to that new acquisitions, such as Fast Search & Transfer technology, or enhancements to Microsoft business intelligence and data warehousing and the result is a Byzantine wonder. (For more about Microsoft’s business intelligence activities and SharePoint navigate here: microsoft.com/bi.

The pivot point, in my opinion, will become search and content processing. Google’s enterprise initiatives include findability in the warp and woof of the digital fabric. For Microsoft, search is a microcosm of the complexity and unevenness of SharePoint. There’s a free search system, a search system that works for up to 50 million documents, and the yet to be released Microsoft implementation of the Fast Search & Transfer system. Fast ESP includes sophisticated text processing methods, report generation and analytics. Google makes search available, extensible and flexible.

Microsoft may be forced to slash prices for SharePoint and possibly its Microsoft Fast search system. If Microsoft must resort to price-cutting to retain or grow market share, the $1.23 billion invested for the Fast Search & Transfer technology might incur even longer payback times. In today’s uncertain financial climate, Google may be poised to trigger an enterprise collaboration and search price tussle.

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