In-Depth

Making Sense of Microsoft Collaboration

The pieces are out there, but fitting them together has proven a long and confusing process.

Three years ago, Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates stood before a crowd in New York City and laid out a dizzying new direction for the company's flagship Office suite.

No longer merely a collection of core desktop productivity applications, he contended, the newly dubbed Office System had evolved into a seamless collection of clients, servers, services and tools that would enable a new era of worker collaboration.

Gates then went on to demonstrate such things as one-click Web conferencing, integrated presence in the Outlook client and capabilities of the new collaboration darling, SharePoint Portal Server. Cool stuff. People were impressed, if not a little confused.

Fast-forward to today and reality sinks in. Microsoft's ambitious collaboration strategy is just beginning to take shape, and it's still confusing. Some products and features are far more ready for prime time than others. IT pros are faced with a portfolio that's voluminous, lacks complete unification and, quite frankly, fails to sidestep a rash of redundancies. On top of that, Microsoft's budding support for emerging voice and other unified communications technologies -- which it considers an integral part of the overall collaboration story -- sets the stage for some tricky training, implementation and development work for IT managers over the next couple of years.

Jeff Raikes

"Being a stack architect is very difficult these days. It used to be so simple to pick the right Microsoft technologies and build a stack," says Tim Huckaby, CEO of InterKnowlogy, a custom .NET development shop. "These days, it's overwhelming."

Huckaby is no neophyte, either. His firm is a bleeding-edge adopter of Microsoft technologies, and has been in on the ground level of the whole raft of collaboration products. The company's latest project, with The Scripps Research Institute, involved building a collaborative molecular environment (CME) client-based tool that lets researchers share 3-D information via Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007 and Vista. Among other things, the application achieved better -- and necessary -- integration between SharePoint and some of the other Office clients, including PowerPoint.

That lack of inherent unification in past and current collaboration products is something that Microsoft is working hard to address in the 2007 platform releases expected to begin in phases starting this month.

"We continue to evolve and improve upon our Office System," says Jeff Raikes, president of the Microsoft Business division. "We see real value in providing customers seamless, intuitive access to the people and information they need within the context of everyday work."

The cornucopia of upgrades includes Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007, Office Communications Server 2007 (formerly Live Communications Server 2005), Exchange Server 2007, Office Communicator 2007, Office Groove 2007 (formerly Groove Virtual Office 3.1) and Office Outlook 2007. New products like the Office RoundTable 360-degree audio/ video conferencing device will also debut after years of speculation and discussion. The links between Office clients, Exchange and SharePoint have reportedly all been improved, however, many analysts and users say the connections between those products and the newer communications software remain murky.

Herein lies the problem: While Microsoft talks about building a seamless, pervasive collaboration platform, many analysts and users complain that the company has done a poor job of clearly sorting out and positioning the many product pieces that constitute that strategy. They believe there are some pieces that overlap each other in terms of core functions and they don't get an adequate feel for the company's long-term commitment to some components.

Dwight Davis

What seem most perplexing to some industry observers are the various communication products and how they might work in concert with server and desktop productivity software to form a more overarching set of solutions. This has contributed to a rather fractured view among users as to the breadth of the company's actual collaboration strategy.

"They have been dropping the term 'collaborative' for a few years now, but they only talk about it in piecemeal fashion or as part of some point product discussion. [Microsoft] could do a better job helping the market understand what is really a multi-faceted story, and how these different technologies address very different problems," says Dwight Davis, vice president at Ovum Summit Inc., a market researcher in Seattle.

Groove on This
Take SharePoint and Groove, for example. Microsoft officials say Groove will continue as a separate product with its own unique set of features for the foreseeable future, yet there is rampant speculation among analysts that key Groove features will instead get baked into the SharePoint pie.

Microsoft's view of Groove's role in the larger scheme of its collaboration strategy has changed since it bought Groove Networks Inc. in early 2005, according to Peter Pawlak, a senior analyst with Directions on Microsoft in Kirkland, Wash. The initial plan was to leverage Groove's peer-to-peer capabilities in a "serverless" environment where people could work jointly on an ad hoc basis on a variety of projects besides those just involving documents. Those hopes broke down because the product's online and offline capabilities made it difficult to keep documents properly updated if some were offline and others could not communicate with them.

"They haven't laid out how Groove is going to move forward in the next go around, but I'd expect that you'll no longer see this idea of a separate Groove client. The capabilities of Groove will likely get folded into SharePoint over time," Pawlak says.

Huckaby agrees, contending that giving Groove a separate Microsoft SKU to sell alone will result in confusion for buyers because Groove's feature set conflicts with a lot of other things within the Microsoft stack. "We paid all this money to get Ray Ozzie, but Groove is contradictory to what is 'Better Together,'" a reference to an internal mantra Microsoft applies to its products.

Quite frankly, it's becoming a SharePoint world. SharePoint, which sits at the heart of any number of combinations of collaboration products, is gaining respect as a battle-tested platform among enterprise accounts. Some now consider SharePoint in the same category of mature and reliable products as SQL Server and Active Directory.

"SharePoint is reaching a state of maturity now where larger customers are not looking down on it. With this last release it has reached a critical mass to where people say, 'OK, this is not going away,'" says John Henderson, an IT specialist with a large regional insurance company in Farmington Hills, Mich.

MICROSOFT SPEAKS UP

Don't underestimate Microsoft's ambitions to establish voice technology as a key ingredient of its collaboration product stew. The company has plans to make it work integrally with all things collaborative and could signal the company's entry into the telephony business as a serious competitor.

One indication of those ambitions is the deal it struck with Nortel earlier this year. The deal is seen by many as a concerted effort to transition the more traditional business phone systems into software by leveraging Microsoft's Unified Communications platform with Nortel's software products to improve telephony functions. The deal has more strategic implications for Microsoft's collaboration plans than the joint development deal it has with Cisco for voice technology. Where Microsoft and Cisco work together but also compete in the voice market, Microsoft and Nortel will work together, but avoid any "coopetition."

"Someone near the top at Nortel did some soul searching and decided software development was too far outside the company's core competency and made the decision to harness their efforts to Microsoft's. It's a deal that could work out for both given Nortel's presence as a large international company," says Peter Pawlak, a senior analyst with Directions on Microsoft in Kirkland, Wash.

"Voice will play a huge role in their next generation of [collaborative] products, to the point where Microsoft could conceivably jump into the telephony business in a major way and do something way beyond just v-mail working with Exchange and Outlook. It could be Active Directory providing your whole directory and security structures and Exchange providing a place to queue messages and unify communications servers," Pawlak says.

Microsoft thinks of voice as yet another application, and that it's at a stage now where instant messaging was in the enterprise five years ago. "We are moving to a world where people will use software to switch VOIP very quickly. These legacy PBXes and voice mail systems represent a huge investment our users have made and so we will continue to offer interoperability with those systems. We will deliver a VOIP PBX software solution," says John Richards, Microsoft's director of SharePoint Services. -- E.S.

Pervasiveness
Ozzie, the inventor of Groove and now Microsoft's chief software architect, is the man who has supplanted Chairman Bill Gates as Microsoft's guiding light into the murky technology future. He and Raikes are in charge of the collaboration and unified communications products, and are trying to reshape the collaboration story from one of disparate point products to a pervasive platform. They envision a scenario where users get the benefits of various collaboration tools -- from instant messaging to Web conferencing to document-sharing -- within their application or interface of choice, be it Outlook or some other client. In other words, collaboration software as embedded infrastructure.

"This notion of pervasive capabilities is a departure from what people thought about Microsoft five years ago. We don't think about making collaboration as a separate place you have to go to, but something that just happens in the context of how you work. This notion of pervasiveness is really important to drive cultural adoption," says John Richards, Microsoft's director of SharePoint Services.

Microsoft now views mobile computing as a core set of investments it must make that, for instance, would give enterprise workers access to any SharePoint Web site from a wide range of devices using Microsoft or non-Microsoft software from any location through a browser. In the upcoming business version of Office 2007, Microsoft continued that commitment with a wide range of capabilities that let it work better with the company's collaboration, communications and voice technologies.

"Having back-end collaboration services integrated into Office apps adds a lot of value," says Erica Driver, an analyst with Forrester Research who recently published a report on Microsoft's collaboration strategy. "It's a differentiator for Microsoft."

In the forthcoming Outlook 2007, for example, users can better take advantage of RSS feeds and work with SharePoint content offline (another redundancy with Groove). Microsoft still has a way to go to call its platform unified, Driver insists, though the truth is that no IT vendor has nailed unification: not IBM, which is Microsoft's prime competition, nor the raft of available open source solutions that largely remain the domain of point products.

COLLABORATION RIVALRY

Microsoft's primary rival in the collaboration space remains IBM Corp., which has been forging ahead with real-time collaboration, unified communications, e-learning and social networking capabilities like wikis and blogs.

IBM's Lotus division is the anchor to its efforts. Key to that is Sametime, the real-time collaboration platform that enables presence, instant messaging, application sharing and Web conferencing. The latest version of the platform, Sametime 7.5, features the Eclipse development environment, which helps simplify integrating Notes-based applications and other software inside a corporate environment, according to Ken Bisconti, IBM's vice president of workplace, portal and collaboration products.

"We believe the next-generation of applications will be built using the composite model," Bisconti says. "By putting Eclipse on Sametime and Notes you get the ability to combine Notes applications with any other programming model."

Like Microsoft, IBM has not fully unified its collaboration components and faces some of the same challenges as Redmond in putting the unified communications puzzle together. Thus far, IBM's approach to blending collaboration and communication capabilities revolves around partnering with third-party networking vendors such as Cisco, Avaya and Siemens. In these solutions, IBM's Sametime delivers the real-time collaboration components, while the partner provides audio/visual services to enable multimedia conferences or connect-to-call scenarios, according to Bisconti.

Perhaps the most confusing thing about IBM's strategy has been reconciling the relatively new Workplace portfolio of Web-based collaboration and messaging tools with the client/server Notes/Domino franchise. Bisconti acknowledged this has been a sticky issue for customers and partners trying to decide what they need and what they don't. One of the things IBM is doing today is using Workplace as a platform for technical innovation, then taking some of the more cutting-edge features -- server-managed clients and composite application support—and driving them into the core Notes/Domino products.

"[IBM has] Lotus with Notes/Domino and SameTime, but they also have WorkPlace, which is a completely different group. From what I can see there is no more unification between Sametime and Notes than there is between LCS and Exchange," says Peter Pawlak, senior analyst with Directions on Microsoft in Kirkland, Wash. -- C.A.

Communications Breakdown
One of the things that makes it difficult for larger enterprises to understand Microsoft's collaboration products and strategies is that there are typically a half dozen different groups of IT pros spread across a single company -- each responsible for only one or two of Microsoft's collaborative products. This bogs down decision-making or results in the use of two or three different Microsoft-based collaborative products. It also becomes a matter of available technical training. Some users blame this on Microsoft, others on their own organization's lack of dedicated resources.

"[Collaboration] technology gets spread around so many areas, you typically don't get all in the same room the guys in IT running SharePoint with the guys in charge of the IM servers with the guys responsible for the communications stuff. It's very hard for large shops to get their arms around a single collaboration strategy just from an organizational standpoint," says Mike Drips, an independent IT specialist who works with large IT shops in the San Francisco area.

This difficulty intensifies when you add communications products to the mix. The Office Communications Server, for example, lags behind more established servers like Exchange and SharePoint, and therefore has IT pros working at various points on the learning curve to implement the platform as a whole.

In particular, analysts say the development interfaces in the communications product are much harder to learn -- still, in some cases, using COM wrappers -- while other products sport Web services APIs. "Programming for [Office Communications Server] is not for the faint of heart," posits Huckaby.

Nonetheless, Raikes defends Microsoft's approach. "Creating a leading VOIP and unified communications solution helps customers be more productive in their day-to-day work, and it's an opportunity I'm personally very excited about. A software-centric approach to unified communications allows information workers to more efficiently manage all types of communications," Raikes says.

Overall, the APIs for the entire messaging, team collaboration and real-time communications/collaborations portfolio need smoothing out, according to analysts and users. Angela Hlavka, vice president of strategic solution development at MTS Allstream in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, says the API issue even goes beyond the desire to streamline the interfaces. She's simply had trouble getting the proper documentation or the right versions. "When Office Communicator came out, we did not have the API documentation to even write presence into our applications," Hlavka says. "Instead, we wrote small sections of code to whatever APIs were out there, until we finally got the right documents just recently."

Hlavka says Microsoft appears to be addressing some of the interface issues with the release of the 2007 products, many of which her company is already running in its labs. She's also had a chance to see where Microsoft has done a good job dealing with weaknesses in the products' overall capabilities. For example, Office Communications Server 2007 vastly improves the 2005 version's challenges in sending audio and video across multiple firewalls, she says. Also, Exchange Server 2007 now integrates with Microsoft's Speech Server and brings together voicemail -- unified messaging in a more elegant way.

This kind of integration is exactly where Microsoft is hoping to go as it brings various communications technologies into the fold. "Within unified communications, you can do a bunch of things to bring together all of the different communications capabilities you have, no matter where you want to work," says Richards.

Still, most analysts agree it will take some time before these two sides of the technology pie work seamlessly together, and even more time -- at least a couple of years -- before IT managers are implementing this platform on a widespread basis.

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