What's Wrong with SharePoint?: Third-Party SharePoint Developers Weigh In
What is SharePoint, anyway? Here are some things we know. It's a billion-plus-dollar blockbuster product for Microsoft. SharePoint is a data repository, a collaboration system, a publishing tool, an enterprise content management (ECM) system and a development platform. It's packed with enough features to be just about all things to all organizations, and yet it rarely is.
The disappointment boils down to the issue of simplicity, and simple is one thing SharePoint definitely is not.
Instead of being a strategic piece of technology infrastructure, SharePoint tends to be a helpful add-on in the Microsoft stack. It's sort of like a $700 tie matched with a $150 suit. Sure, it looks great, and maybe it has an impact from time to time, but it's kind of being wasted in its surroundings. SharePoint, ideally, is the whole suit, not just the tie. But it's hard for organizations to understand that, and even harder for them to use the product that way. That's because SharePoint's ever-increasing complexity makes migrating to it and getting the most out of it a major commitment for IT departments, many of which don't have the time or inclination to undertake either task.
Some of the people who know SharePoint best -- third-party developers -- talked to Redmond about all of these shortcomings. But they also said that the product has a bright future and that Microsoft is taking steps to remedy some of SharePoint's ills. The bottom line is that if companies dig deep enough and commit enough resources, they can take advantage of SharePoint's strategic benefits.
Might as Well Use It
One myth that needs debunking is the popular notion that companies are clamoring to buy SharePoint. For the most part, observers say, that's not the case. Sure, Microsoft says it's making a lot of money from the product, but many companies only have SharePoint either because a workgroup or department set it up on its own or because they got it through Software Assurance or some other sort of licensing program that threw SharePoint in with the technology the firms actually wanted to buy.
"Customers are [implementing SharePoint] because they own it," says Jason Masterman, general manager, portals and collaborations practice at Neudesic LLC, a SharePoint consultancy based in Irvine, Calif. "It's not that they're doing research and choosing [SharePoint]. They're doing it because they own it."
Sean McDonough, a former SharePoint consultant and now chief SharePoint evangelist at Idera Inc., a Houston-based SharePoint tools provider, agrees. "Most people who implement SharePoint are not people going out and buying licenses for SharePoint just because they want SharePoint," he says. "They realize that they've already bought SharePoint and now can use it. Nine times out of 10 when I'd be going in doing a strategic consultation, it [was], 'We apparently already own this, and we want to implement it.'"
And when they do set it up, they're often just looking to replace a different content management system, rather than take full advantage of SharePoint's capabilities. Barry Jinks, president and CEO of Colligo Networks Inc., a SharePoint ISV based in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, says the thinking often goes like this: "I used to have content management platform X, and I had all these functions in content management platform X. I'm going to try to recreate content management platform X in SharePoint."
One particular problem with the frequent focus on content management is that it isn't actually one of SharePoint's stronger capabilities. "SharePoint takes a lot of knocks as an ECM system. It does the job, but it doesn't do the job continually well," McDonough says.
John Hodges, VP of global account product management at AvePoint Inc., a SharePoint ISV based in Jersey City, N.J., echoes Jinks' sentiment about the roots of SharePoint use in most companies. He says most companies that started with SharePoint 2003 or 2007 used it in only a limited capacity.
"People didn't really start out in older versions of SharePoint with information architecture in mind," Hodges says. "A couple of guys got together and needed a collaboration site, so they set up a collaboration site." With the release of SharePoint 2010, he says, many of those customers were hesitant to expand their use of the product. "The best feature of SharePoint that our customers are not using is SharePoint 2010 itself. They left most of their users on 2007," Hodges says.
A Multiheaded Monster
Part of the reason for that hesitation is that while SharePoint 2010 brought improved functionality in content management (as well as in other areas), it also greatly increased the complexity of the product, making it more difficult to implement and migrate to.
McDonough says "the complexity of that platform and the vast array of interdependencies" are the biggest complaints users have. "That ease of end-user experience comes with extreme cost to IT in terms of maintaining it, setting it up, keeping it running and performing," he adds. "It's very painful to set up. Most organizations at best have one or two people they throw at it, so it's this overwhelming experience."
And, McDonough continues, it's only going to get worse. "All of these [new features] tie into the same plumbing," he says. "It's the rolling ball of junk that rolls downhill and gets bigger and bigger. It's only going to get more complex as
[Microsoft keeps] adding things into it. If you look within Microsoft, SharePoint is not built by a single team. It's a group of teams that have responsibility in different areas. People are not necessarily paying attention. It just grows bigger and bigger and bigger with each release."
And that complexity leads to performance and usability problems. SharePoint is very slow on connections that aren't lightning-fast, such as satellite Internet connections on oil rigs and tankers, Hodges notes. But the problem isn't just confined to offshore or rural locations.
"It's a very bandwidth-intensive suite of tools and solutions," says Steve Bystran, senior vice president of global sales and business development at GSX Solutions, a provider of SharePoint monitoring software based in Geneva. "Depending on where the content resides, your level of satisfaction or frustration is largely based on bandwidth. When you're used to a certain response time, you become very dissatisfied very quickly if things aren't responding."
A more pervasive problem, though, involves the basic SharePoint user experience. "People, for example, like to work in Outlook," says Bill Evans, vice president and general manager of the SharePoint practice at Quest Software Inc., a provider of SharePoint configuration and management tools based in Aliso Viejo, Calif. "That doesn't facilitate using SharePoint. I'm not going to like being forced to use SharePoint. It's the inertia of the information worker not being compelled to use SharePoint" that slows adoption, Evans says.
Beyond that, SharePoint can be just plain hard to use. "The difficulty that people have in using the product is just to do something simple," says David Lavenda, vice president of marketing and product strategy at harmon.ie (formerly known as Mainsoft), a provider of cross-platform SharePoint integration software based in Milpitas, Calif. "To send a document link to somebody else is a nine-step process."
The Future of SharePoint
Complex though it may be -- and partly because it is so complicated -- SharePoint is extremely powerful. Its ability to combine content management and collaboration alone holds the potential to increase efficiency and lower costs, observers say. And it already provides a solid platform for managing information and interactions, says Chris McNulty, SharePoint expert and project manager at Quest.
"To really leverage the capacity of the platform for doing actual collaboration as opposed to storage -- those are functions that not all of them have gotten [to] yet," McNulty says.
Masterman, of Neudesic, whose company provides SharePoint consulting services, says companies often fail with SharePoint implementations because they underestimate the complexity of the product. "Where I think companies fall short on delivery is there's a little too much belief that their completely maxed-out IT staff can build something with no budget, no time and no expertise."
To be sure, Microsoft can only do so much to guarantee successful SharePoint implementations. Third parties and customers themselves bear most of the responsibility there. But there are a few areas observers say they'd like to see Microsoft improve or expand upon in SharePoint 15.
Data Tagging and Searching
One critical area revolves around management of metadata. Absolutely critical to SharePoint, data tagging can be a lax and loose process depending on the governance in place and how users choose to identify -- or not identify -- their critical data. Observers say that Microsoft could help with the accuracy and usefulness of data tagging.
"Everything revolves around metadata," Hodges, of AvePoint, says. "Our governance policies almost exclusively depend on how well you tag your content in SharePoint. Importance to the business is all contained in that metadata. Microsoft needs to come out with more tools for that -- something that helps me view it better, deploy it better. Some more prescriptive tagging -- that's the way I would put it. Something that says, 'Your content is governed by this rule.'"
"End users are in the best place to declare content," says Colligo's Jinks.
Tagging data properly is especially important because search is one of the areas observers identify as being a potential competitive advantage for SharePoint. "We're going to see SharePoint search as a serious contender for enterprise-level search across non-SharePoint locations," McDonough says.
SharePoint is great for users sitting in an office tethered to a corporate network. But take it on the road, and it starts to break down. With the proliferation of devices in enterprises, it's critical for Microsoft to improve mobile access if SharePoint is to reach its potential for users.
"The single biggest thing I want to see improved is the mobile experience," McDonough says. "As a user, my mobile experience with SharePoint is absolutely miserable. Without that type of integration, SharePoint is going to be limited to desktops and browsers. It's my understanding that [Microsoft is] trying to improve the mobile experience. I'm hoping for a revolutionary change instead of an evolutionary next step."
Masterman agrees. "SharePoint has to be more broadly accessible by all devices from all locations easily," he says.
Microsoft has placed great emphasis on cloud-based applications in recent years, and it's possible to run SharePoint in the cloud. But third parties would like to see on-premises versions of SharePoint work more effectively with other cloud-based systems, and they say that Microsoft needs to make it easier for developers to create cloud-based apps to tie into SharePoint. In particular, developers would like to see more cohesive development possibilities between SharePoint and Office 365, the new online productivity suite from Microsoft.
"One direction that I'd personally like to see Microsoft move in is making custom development more cloud friendly," Quest's Evans says. "You can't install custom Web parts and server-side code."
McDonough shares a similar concern. "Office 365 has made all sorts of traction," he says. "There's a problem with this move to the cloud in that it makes it difficult for us to leverage our tools in a way that's cloud friendly."
For example, Idera's backup product has to have code running on the SharePoint box, McDonough says. "That situation is not permitted in Office 365 and many hosted situations," he says. "Microsoft needs to extend APIs so that those tools can run in those scenarios."
All Things to Those Who Figure It Out
But none of the enhancements to SharePoint 15 or beyond will matter much if users never find ways to take advantage of them. The key for adoption now is for businesses to look at SharePoint as a strategic collaboration and information-management platform rather than as a single-purpose tool. Truly delving into the benefits of SharePoint will require a firm commitment from both business and IT leaders, and that's no mean feat. But for those organizations that manage to navigate their way through the platform, the payoff can be significant
Lee Pender is the executive features editor of Redmond magazine. You can reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.