06 March 2008

SharePoint Conference 2008

I just finished my time at the 2008 SharePoint conference in Seattle (admittedly a little early).  By all accounts, this conference was well attended with over 3800 participants.  Keynotes at the conference were given by Bill Gates, Kurt DelBene and three-time Tour de France winner (and first non-European winner) Greg LeMond.  In addition there were a whole slew of sessions on everything from Search Server 2008, Branding SharePoint and Microsoft's latest technology acquisition search vendor Fast.

Most significantly, Microsoft made a few announcements/general statements -- some surprising and some expected:

  • "Cloud" Strategy
    Microsoft is making a commitment to introduce managed SharePoint and Exchange services to a broad range of organizations.  Up to now, only firms with 5000 or more seats could participate in their managed strategy (primarily because they were testing and hadn't worked out a multi-tenant approach).  During the conference Bill Gates and Kurt DelBene (Senior Vice President, Office Business Platform Group) announced that they are introducing multi-tenant (more than one client on a "box") managed services for both Exchange and SharePoint (in addition to rolling in LiveMeeting).  Both services will also enable single sign-on, so that historical issues with multiple authentication prompts should be a thing of the past, and a provisioning workflow for both sites and users.  Ultimately, the strategy seems to create an offering where clients can get an "enterprise" experience, where users can leverage a full compliment of traditionally on-premise applications -- like Exchange, SharePoint, Live Communications Server -- through the cloud.  Based on the demo they showed it looks promising.   You can read more here.
  • SharePoint-like Lists in SQL
    One of the more surprising announcements by Bill Gates was a suggestion that the next version of SQL may contain a SharePoint list-like construct within a table.  Taking that a step further, it may also be possible to directly link a SharePoint list to a single table!  After speaking with some of the product team members, I think this announcement was a bit premature (they appeared to cringe when reminded of what Bill had said during his keynote), but I'll be interested to see how both SQL Server and SharePoint progress in the next release.
  • Office Online
    While the executives stopped short of saying "we're going to give you Office over the web," they hinted we could be seeing versions of some of the Office suite products being offered over the web -- in thin-client form.  Never one to shy away from a good dig, Bill Gates took aim at Google's "consumer" centric approach, offering that they're (Google's) online productivity products aren't ready for the enterprise.
  • Visual Studio 2008 compatible Extensions for SharePoint in June
    One source of frustration is the constant marketing of VS 2008 improvements over 2005, but a complete lack of support for SharePoint projects (with the exception of workflow).  Product team members were on hand to assure everyone that the extensions are coming, with cool enhancements over the current 1.1 release for 2005.  They estimate these extensions will be available by June of this year.
  • Fast Search Integrated with SharePoint
    What was both disappointing and encouraging, Fast has folks onsite to discuss their work to integrate with SharePoint.  The downside was that it felt more like a marketing pitch than a "real" discussion regarding how they were going to enhance SharePoint.  That said, they did demonstrate some of the key advantages of their tool, in the SharePoint context.  In addition, they demonstrated some admittedly very slick Silverlight-enabled search result/interaction controls.  They also demonstrated a search-centric personalization approach with faceted navigation that was novel, even if it was not entirely new.
  • Browser Compatibility and Accessibility 
    This is less of an announcement and more of what should be a red-faced admission that SharePoint isn't as cross-browser compatible as anyone would have hoped, nor as accessible.  While 2007 is vastly improved over 2003, there are still pretty significant issues on both front.  In both cases, the product team assured everyone that this was a priority for vNext (Office 14/2010ish).  As a short term fix, they're pointing people to Telerik for their "upgrades" to the rich text editor, blog editor and wiki editor.  For accessibility, there's  a "toolkit" (developed with HiSoftware), to help with the accessibility aspects.

Beyond the announcements, the conference was full of the usual information sessions.  Microsoft seemed to have a good mix of services partners, ISVs and  Microsoft employees (both Microsoft Consulting Services and product team folks).

I was able to attend a number of sessions, but was generally dismayed at the lack of real depth or new material.  As mentioned earlier, the Fast search sessions were only slightly better than marketing pitches for their software.  Sessions on best practices rehashed the same stuff that virtually anyone in this space would know and has already heard a dozen times. If you had attended the previous SharePoint conference, it seemed like many of those sessions were repeated at this event (more than a year later).  And, in what seemed like a bizarre event, other attendees reported that in one session, two speakers began to disagree with each other during their presentation and  the talk degraded into unintelligible babble.

There were a few bright spots however.  The sessions on the new Search Server 2008 struck a nice balance between technical detail and actual usage.  Customers like EasyJet and Chesapeake Energy did a good job of relating how their SharePoint implementations progressed and the value that they received (a similar presentation by Best Buy for Business was less interesting though).  Finally, the session on the latest version of the Community pack for Wikis was quite interesting, if only to demonstrate how SharePoint can be extended beyond it core competencies, as well as the community support behind the product.

In all, the conference wasn't a waste of time, but I would have preferred better material.  I would have liked to have seen deeper material around all of the topics (in fact for developers, the Office Developers Conference earlier this year in San Jose was the place to be).   Better titles for some session would have also helped -- a sessions titled "My Content is in SharePoint, now what" sounded like it would have been about adoption or user experience, but really ended up being about securing content.  A good topic, to be sure, but poorly "branded." Finally, the best practices session is something everyone wants (the room was packed), but they should have focused more on the specific challenges in running a SharePoint implementation like: provisioning (the explosion that can occur), the challenge around taxonomy development, when to create site definitions vs. site templates, how to train users, dealing with varying levels of Office and so on.

If you were at the conference, I'd love to hear your feedback.  Like it?  Thought it was a waste of time?  Were there particular sessions that piqued your interest?

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