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What’s all the hype about?

I have been in this industry for 20 years now and cannot remember anything coming close to the current anticipation and hype surrounding next year’s release of Microsoft SharePoint 2010. It’s all the more surprising when you consider that this is simply an upgrade to an already successful product. We will have to wait and see whether the substance matches the buildup and whether the expectation will be fulfilled when the product hits the real world. In the meantime, it’s worth looking at SharePoint 2010, what it promises and why so much buzz is being generated.

Depending on how you measure these things, that hot “new” product called Microsoft SharePoint is soon to celebrate its eighth or 10th birthday. Yes, indeed, SharePoint has been around a while now in different guises. Starting off life as Site Server and being positioned at different times as a portal server and then as an enterprise content management (ECM) system, SharePoint has been a chameleon-like winner for Microsoft.

As of 2009, SharePoint delivered around $1.3 billion a year in license revenue with about 100 million licenses shipped. A winner by anyone’s standard, yet despite all that, SharePoint is loved and hated in equal amounts. There are those who will hear not a word of criticism against the product, and others who think it is junk-wrapped in a tissue of marketing half-truths. Probably no other product in the history of content-related software has evoked such strong emotions, and even though SharePoint is now well into its software middle age, it continues to both excite and ruffle feathers alike.

At some point next year, we will see the release of the latest incarnation of SharePoint, the catchy and imaginatively named SharePoint 2010. By some measures, it will be the biggest and most comprehensive step up in sophistication and functionality in the product’s history; by other measures, it is little more than a substantial point release. In fact, it’s difficult to gauge just how important the new release will really be, because there’s so much hoopla going on in the SharePoint community that separating facts and reality from the excitement and hopes of the Microsoft channel partners is a tough challenge.

What we know for sure about SharePoint 2010 is that there will be a new and very snazzy Ajax-based user interface (UI), along with a new rich text editor. A new shared service architecture will be introduced, records and document management have undergone something of a makeover and some key licensing issues have been resolved.  Many key niggles have been addressed, the system is more scalable and a great deal of functionality has been improved. But whether that will be enough for the buyers of 100 million seats to upgrade remains to be seen.

What we know about SharePoint to date is that simplicity and ease of use have been key to its success. Users, in particular, love SharePoint because simple and highly effective team-focused portals can be built and documents securely shared in a collaborative environment, without the need for IT skills. In other words, something that would have taken many months of development work (and a lot of money) just a few years ago can be developed by anyone in the company in 30 minutes.

There in is the challenge for Microsoft ... how to move all those people who are perfectly happy today to a new platform. What is in it for them to move from a situation in which they are content? It won’t be the first time Microsoft has faced that kind of challenge (think MS 2000 and Vista). Only time (not industry analysts and pundits) will tell how that plays out.

At CMS Watch, many, if not most, of our advisory customers use SharePoint in some way, and so by default, a good percentage of our work revolves around the general question, “Should I use SharePoint for this or that?” And now the question is being asked, “Should I move to SharePoint 2010?” Though every case differs, in general my advice is to wait.

SharePoint 2010 is in beta release at the moment and will be launched fully in mid-2010; until then, you should not be thinking of a move. That is the same advice we would give to any buyer considering moving up to any major release of an enterprise software product.

Many firms have a sensible policy of remaining one major release behind the current version, and frankly that’s a policy that makes a great deal of sense. In the case of SharePoint (just as with any SharePoint competitor), you are dealing with a large, broad and highly complex software platform ... one that will take time before all the bugs, issues and best practices are uncovered and ironed out.  

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