SharePoint Is Microsoft's Real Window Of Opportunity

Last Updated Oct 21, 2009 8:31 PM EDT

The Windows 7 sideshow begins Thursday but the main event, held earlier this week, was the introduction of SharePoint 2010, which underpins Microsoft's migration of Office productivity tools to the Web.

Here's something that folks at Google, Cisco, EMC, Apple, Zoho and even Salesforce.com don't want to hear: SharePoint 2010 and the Office 2010 family of productivity tools are the culmination of Microsoft's seven-year-long migration from desktop dominance to Web dominance. For the first time, Office and the SharePoint server are going to be available through the cloud, allowing customers to collaborate concurrently on the Web and on-premise. By using the Open XML document format (Microsoft's "standards-based" but proprietary code), Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF) as a document model, and Silverlight as a runtime engine for the Web, Microsoft has created a way for end users to seamlessly move and share documents between the Web and the desktop, using SharePoint as the Web-based collaboration server.

So while everyone has been running to the Web in the hopes of beating Microsoft to the punch, Microsoft has, since 2003 when it first introduced WPF, been quietly protecting its interests on the Web by creating products that work on the Web, but only according to its own rules. And because so many customers already use Microsoft, and so many business processes are already etched into Microsoft stone, they will keep using Microsoft on the Web rather than reinvent their wheels.

(What do I mean by business processes? Microsoft documents are compounds of the visible text and invisible instructions that allow certain users access to given data sets, run certain database queries when in the hands of certain users and not others, and myriad other business rules that are literally embedded into the document template.)

Is that a big deal? It is if you consider that there are literally billions of documents that depend on Open XML to render business processes like those embedded in documents used by work groups in large mortgage brokers in considering a loan application. This same process also ensures that a chart being viewed by a group of collaborators through an online wiki is updated in real time when the data in the corresponding spreadsheet sitting somewhere on a desktop of SharePoint server changes.

Customers can't switch to competing document editing products unless those tools can replicate those processes, and they can't. Yes, Google, EMC, Cisco and others have collaboration tools, but none that can edit Microsoft documents properly, because they don't use Open XML.

This type of functionality is only possible because of the intimate relationship, all underpinned by Open XML, WPF -- and Silverlight on the Web â€" of Microsoft SQL Server, Office, Exchange, Active Directory, Collaboration Server and Web applications (and yes, like batteries, these essentials are all sold separately).
What Microsoft has succeeded in doing is moving the center of productivity and collaboration, which had been in the on-premise Office environment, to the Web without breaking those processes that make its applications so powerful to end users.

According to open source developer Gary Edwards, president of OpenStack Business Systems, no other vendor is in a position to provide the platform necessary to compete with that type of interoperability. "The platform is the interconnection of all these applications-- The 2010 family is the culmination of many years of putting together endless pieces. For me, they've done it. There's only one player in a position to make that happen and they're not anywhere close."

That one player, of course, is Google, but in picking HTML5 as the underpinning for its Wave collaboration platform, Google is betting against the persistence of legacy documents that require something else (yeah, you got it, Open XML).

"Google says, 'let a thousand formats bloom--just convert them.' But the problem is that you break them in the conversion process," Edwards told me. It's something customers aren't willing to do, which is why Microsoft is in a position to do on the Web what it did to the desktop. Utter domination.

[Image source: Merkur via Flickr]
  • Michael Hickins

    Michael Hickins has written about technology and business for BNET, InformationWeek, InternetNews.com, eWEEK -- where he was executive editor from 2007-2008 -- The Curator, Pseudo.com, Multex Investor, Reuters, and Conde Nast's WWD.com. Hickins is the author of The Actual Adventures of Michael Missing, a collection of short stories published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1991. He also published Blomqvist, a picaresque novel set in 11th century Europe, in 2006. Hickins remains passionately interested in the intersections of business, technology, politics and culture, and endures a life-long obsession with baseball. He is married with two children and lives in Manhattan.