Is it time to reconsider SharePoint?

When I left SharePoint a couple of years ago, I had invested almost two years in SharePoint 2007, its second iteration (the first, 2003, was a bit of a joke for content management). I had my own Enterprise Edition initially running on a VM, then on a shared server and finally on my own pair of HP servers. I found it to be very powerful but its potential hard to realize. I couldn't understand content types primarily because of SP's list orientation. Most importantly, in technical and marketing training, Microsoft had absolutely no interest in the content creation and management process at an individual user or workgroup level.

There were five aspects which I couldn't overcome.

First, the first was the positioning of SharePoint 2007 as an out-of-the-box (OOTB) solution that was fast, cheap and easy to buy, deploy and use. In a nutshell, it was heavily and deliberately oversold which resulted in expectations that were difficult to address. In the result, organizations were unwilling to spend and we now have a lot of licences out there but few real users. Everyone's got it and no one's using it. For large software subscription customers, SharePoint was a no brainer.

Second, the complexity and bugginess of SharePoint 2007 was compounded by poor documentation. Yes, these are characteristics of the early days of a big application especially from Microsoft. Early adopters are punished with some regularity by Microsoft.

Third, SharePoint 2007 needs an infrastructure in order to benefit from its capabilities. There are a lot things needed to make it useful and productive to people but the OOTB positioning meant that it has been hard to sell organization on this need. If you bought SharePoint as an OOTB solution, then why would you?

I recall sitting in a conference with a half a dozen in-house SharePoint IT people in which we were to develop an initial plan for the organization's several businesses. The key SharePoint resource sketched out the organization chart and then just added sites to each. Hey, we're done! No discussion of what people would actually use it for, no use cases, no nothing.

Fourth, authoring or content creation, production, management and use at the user level of tasks and pages or documents, were not considered of sufficient importance to even mention in passing. Endless demos of cool things that a user could do never actually got to where the rubber meets the road, sitting in front of an editor and creating content. The editor was called HTML Editor and it was really limited. For example, pasting HTML encoded text wasn't supported. Need I say more. Yes, there was a more capable HTML editor, Telerik's Rad Editor, what Microsoft chose to use in MSDN, CodePlex, TechNet, MCMS and now as an alternative to the default editor in SharePoint, but not then unless you bought it yourself, an unlikely prospect for organization's given the fast, easy and cheap mantra. Who authors in HTML anyway?

(See Telerik Delivers Innovative Accessible Web Editor to Market and the demo. In a way that I have come to see as typical, RadEditor allows you to save to a file provided that you follow a procedure that, again, requires some infrastructure.)

Fifth and finally, the price of a licence for a public-facing site was priced for the very large organizations — only they could afford one. In addition, there were no online versions at that point except, again, for the very large, on hosted MOSS servers with costs about the same as for in-house use. Yes, now there are a variety of hosted offerings from Microsoft and its partners but we will need to wait six months to a year to see multi-tenant versions of SharePoint 2010.

So what has changed in 2010?

Well, for one thing, authoring is now supported and, in some respects, is quite good.

However, MS has repositioned SP as a collaboration platform rather than content management solution so that's a problem even though the distinction is pretty well meaningless.

The complexity is still there but a lot of work has gone into making SharePoint easier to administer and deploy. The documentation is a lot better. The remarkable MS partner ecosystem has done its job of providing what MS finds too innovative, expensive or risky.

Expectations are still an issue.

So is it time to reconsider SharePoint in its third incarnation? Definitely yes. It's the elephant in the CMS market and for users with a well developed infrastructure, it offers a lot of capabilities.