Could SharePoint Be Microsoft's New Mode of Lock-In?

Loraine Lawson

I've written about Office 2007 and Sharepoint, simply because together, the two offer impressive integration features. I admit, I really don't keep up with all things Microsoft. I leave that to fellow IT Business Edge blogger and editor-in-chief, Kachina Dunn, who writes Microsoft Hardliner.


Still, what I've read about these products has been overwhelmingly positive.


But no matter how much you flatten it, there are always two sides to a pancake, and so it seems to be with vendor IT offerings. Thursday, Matt Asay at CNET's News Blog flips the SharePoints pancake and shows us the burnt side.


Asay starts with high praise for Microsoft, SharePoint and how Microsoft is tapping its partner ecosystem to drive SharePoint adoption. It's an impressive business move, writes Asay, who should know -- he works for Alfresco, a company that provides an open-source alternative to SharePoint.


But after the professional courtesy remarks, he dives into the problem, cautioning that what's "good for Microsoft and its partners is not necessarily good for Microsoft's customers."


While SharePoint may finally allow companies to easily integrate Office 2007 with back-end applications, it is effectively locking customers into Microsoft's repository, processes and, ultimately, solutions, Asay argues.

Steve Ballmer calls it the next big "operating system" from Microsoft. It is designed to bind enterprise customers to Microsoft's processes, just as Microsoft is starting to lose its grasp on file format lock-in. Microsoft could give away its file format lock-in if it can just get content into its proprietary repository (i.e., SharePoint). At that point, it won't matter whether the files are JPEG, Open Document Format or PDF -- Microsoft will own that content and, hence, the customer's future.


SharePoint is the future of lock-in, and Microsoft is doing everything it can to enable its partners to bind companies with it.

Asay urges Microsoft competitors to confront the SharePoint challenge upfront and offer customers an alternative.


To balance that view, however, I suggest you read our June Q&A with Lee Nicholls, who shared his take on the integration promise of Office 2007. Nicholls is the global solutions director at Getronics, a $3.4 billion global IT services company and Microsoft Gold partner specializing in Vista and Office 2007 implementations -- which obviously gives Nicholls a vested interest in convincing people to upgrade.


But he was candid about Microsoft's past failings. I asked him point-blank why we should believe Microsoft's integration promises this time around -- particularly since they promised similar results in 1999. Here's what he said:

...when Office 2000 first came out, Microsoft told us it would change the way we work and it would improve our productivity, but it couldn't do that because Exchange wasn't ready at a level it could deliver on Microsoft's promise at the time and there wasn't the IM (instant messaging) technology so IM couldn't be integrated. The biggest thing that was missing was SharePoint. It's an amazing product. SharePoint is one of the ones I'm taken aback by, because I really do think it's going to accelerate business dramatically.

He explained how SharePoint would act as a central business hub, allowing companies to use Office 2007 as a front-end interface for back-end applications. You could, for example, now access and update records in SAP from Outlook without even opening SAP as a separate application, he said. It's impressive, and you can definitely see how that would appeal to everyday business users.


This could be a tough one for IT leaders. Business users are comfortable with Microsoft. They know how to use the Office interface, and apparently like it to the point users will create their own mini-BI tools from Excel and opt out of the corporate system. But, if Asay's right, vendor lock-in could cause unforeseen problems or major costs down the road.


After reading Asay's column and the interview with Nicholls, at least you'll know which questions to ask before investing in either SharePoint or an alternative solution.

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