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
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.
"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.
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,
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,"
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.
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
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
"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.
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
"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
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.
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
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