Microsoft collaboration still worries me
About 8 years ago I was a member of a group charged with selecting a new Email system, we looked at our requirements and were rapidly swayed by visions of the strategic role that Lotus Notes could play in our business unit. Exchange and Outlook by contrast could only demonstrate ease of use and focus (perhaps I am being generous here). Anyway not surprisingly we selected Lotus Notes. Well; years passed by and although Notes was used for much more than Email corporate strategy over rode business unit concerns and Notes Email is no longer – replaced by Exchange.
Was Notes really so bad during this period to justify its replacement – not in my view, these are the key issues I saw with Lotus/IBM over those years:
- Notes lost out primarily because Lotus focussed too much on the customer and not enough on the user, the customer – those guys in IT – liked the compatibility, the ease of upgrade, the rapid application development, application integration etc, but the end user saw little of that, and if Microsoft has done anything right in the past its the focus on the end user. The end user wanted the OS, the Office Suite and the Collaboration suite to feel like and integrated set of applications and to be the same as the tools they used at home. In addition they liked that fact that Outlook was a platform that was so extensively supported by third party application developers and by portable devices.
- IBM and Lotus sold a grand vision, and as all to often happens in IT that vision was over taken by disruptive alternatives long before it was ever realised.
During that same period however we have seen more serious issues with Microsoft:
- Little innovation within Exchange and Outlook
- Many different poorly integrated collaboration solutions (SharePoint v1, Public Folders, Team Spaces, Web Storage System, Team Services …) although these are all very slowly converging to SharePoint although it will be SharePoint v4 at the earliest before we see full convergence
- A very poor off-line working experience across these various different systems
- A poor user experience, especially when you include IM, presence, Groove, news groups, audio, video and data conferencing
- Great difficulty (except with Groove) to use these products across the enterprise AND the extended enterprise
- A very complex development experience
- A mine field of different application version dependencies
However recently I have seen some encouraging signs:
- Microsoft is slowly but undeniably improving the user experience
- Outlook is being considered more of a platform, or collaboration integration hub, for example it is providing off-line client capabilities to SharePoint as well as Email and Public Folders and RSS
- Office integration with SharePoint continues to improve, and Office 2007 begins to show for the first time the early realization of the benefits of integrated innovation
- Usage across the extended enterprise is starting to look viable
- Office 2007 is giving a lot of power back to individuals and teams, and is starting to look very much like a worthy enterprise implementation of most key web 2.0 concepts
- The web services commitment in Exchange 12 and SharePoint looks good, especially as Office 2007 and project 2007 integration with SharePoint and Project Server is all achieved using these services. I look forward to the day that the same can be said of Outlook and Exchange.
- Monad support in Exchange 12 is a great manage-ability improvement and is a taster for what’s to come in the future for all Microsoft products.
- However we can see many similar improvements within the IBM/lotus space.
However there are still concerns:
- Exchange is suffering growing pains and too much focus is having to be directed towards basic engineering and manage-ability rather than customer driven innovation
- Microsoft has scared customers by de-emphasising Public Folders whilst still not having a viable alternative for several key scenarios, see the comments in the previous link.
- The off-line experience for SharePoint in Outlook 2007 is still limited
- Outlook is still not a universal information worker client, not including for example support for NNTP (still need Outlook Express) and not providing a full rich client interface to SharePoint
- There is a new disrupter on the block, now that Microsoft have acquired Groove, and I am concerned that trying to find a home for Groove will take effort away from making Outlook the collaborative hub that it needs to be.
- Competing information management and collaboration technologies in Vista will further confuse and dilute focus
- The tensions within Microsoft around rich clients, IE web clients, other web clients and other rich clients, for example RSS readers make a coherent vision difficult to achieve
- Version dependencies between Microsoft products continue to be a major area of worry for me
Outside of Microsoft and IBM though the world is moving at breakneck speed:
- We see public infrastructure services springing up daily
- We see adoption of these services taking place at near exponential rates
- We see a myriad of creative business models
- Fuelled by the mix of Search, XML, RSS, REST, AJAX etc we see early signs of a new model for interoperability and integration
- We see employees increasingly driving the agenda for change within enterprises by demonstrating – using their own resources and public infrastructure services – the art of the possible to their employers
The next couple of years will be very interesting, a few of the questions running through my head right now:
- Will Office System 2007 prove to be a realization of the web 2.0 model for enterprises, or will it be an example of a legacy environment trying to demonstrate such credentials too little to late?
- How compelling is the ability that Microsoft have to integrate the client, with the office suite, with the directory and security services and with the application services, and will such integration slow down innovation or speed it up?
- Will enterprises choose the flexibility of loosely integrated public infrastructure services over tightly integrated enterprise infrastructures?
- Will enterprises keep control or even need to control their users, or will users increasingly buy public infrastructure services to meet the needs of their teams and projects, will this create a need for new classes of integration and management infrastructure?
- Will IBM’s strategic vision be disrupted before it has chance to be widely deployed, or will it prove agile enough to keep up?