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Is SharePoint 2013 a product or a platform?

My colleague Apoorv Durga pointed me to an interesting paragraph in a Microsoft SharePoint Team blog post entitled The New SharePoint. To quote:

Use SharePoint as an out-of-box application whenever possible - We designed the new SharePoint UI to be clean, simple and fast and work great out-of-box. We encourage you not to modify it which could add complexity, performance and upgradeability and to focus your energy on working with users and groups to understand how to use SharePoint to improve productivity and collaboration and identifying and promoting best practices in your organization.

This is laudable advice from Redmond, and mimics what many other observers (including Real Story Group) have been counseling for five years.

The problem with this advice, though, is that much if not most of SharePoint's value has traditionally come from customization and extension. In fact, Microsoft has aggressively promoted SharePoint's customizability to its unusually loyal channel of consulting and integration partners. Redmond even crowed to this captive audience about how every dollar spent on SharePoint licensing generated six-to-nine dollars spent on outside services. Among the broader SharePoint ecosystem it became a matter of canon that with enough time and money they could get SharePoint to accomplish practically anything.

Naturally this phenomenon led to some very unpleasant surprises and delays for enterprise customers who failed to budget for such services on the assumption that SharePoint was an "out of the box" product. Redmond's responded in part by rolling out Office 365, a trimmed-down, hosted version with somewhat limited customization options. Despite some enterprise wins, Office 365 has proven best suited to smaller organizations with simpler needs.

A New Approach...

With SharePoint 2013, Microsoft has changed its messaging. Now Redmond wants to focus on individual users, with the moniker, "The new way to work together."

But really, who cares about messaging? The key question is: has Microsoft truly turned around this huge supertanker full of technology? It's still early to tell, but I'm doubtful.

...Some Old Problems

Microsoft's blog post is telling in this regard. They confuse user interface (UI) with user experience (UX). Those are two different things. Yes, SharePoint 2013's new Windows 8-style visuals look cleaner, but that's only a small part of the UX story. The purpose of UX in the enterprise is to enable people to become more effective. In that context, UI becomes entirely situational. There are times when a Windows 8 paradigm will work well. I'm sure there are scenarios where it won't work well. In any case, you don't create value by modifying the UI alone.

I believe that if you look more deeply past the UI, you'll discover that your colleagues really want polished applications that solve specific problems. The dearth of specific, elaborated applications in SharePoint has been its biggest achilles heel. Sure, SharePoint offers blogs, wikis, forums, and status messages. But those are just services that need to be integrated and extended within some context to add real value.

I haven't (yet) seen this approach change in SharePoint 2013. The new version features a lot of snazzy new services, but you'll need someone else to turn them into applications. To be fair, Redmond could not possibly anticipate, let alone build, all those applications. They will need channel partners to do so: integrators and 3rd-party app vendors alike. This will bring customers added power and -- inevitably -- added complexity and cost. Just like any other platform.

What You Should Do...

There's no question SharePoint 2013 will represent a significant improvement over SharePoint 2010. The smart customer will look at user experience more holistically, and seek to build applications rather than simply stand up the new version and hope for the best. That same customer will also want to keep a close hand on their wallet.

To learn more and exchange experiences with your peers, consider joining us for the SharePoint Symposium in Washington, DC this October.

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