User-Driven Software: SharePoint 2010

On Wednesday, I'll be in New York City to attend the Microsoft Office 2010 launch event. I've already written a ton about Office 2010, including a three-part lengthy review on the SuperSite for Windows and a separate write-up for the July issue of Windows IT Pro. But Wednesday's event isn't just about Office. In addition, Microsoft will be launching SharePoint 2010, a product and platform that is arguably Microsoft's most successful new offering in the past decade.

I've been testing SharePoint 2010 in my own environment, and I'm struck by how far this platform has come over the years. It's a corporate intranet portal solution, a blogging tool, an online document repository, and a knowledge worker collaboration platform all in one. It's been successfully used for public-facing websites as well. In its latest guise, it can even host an internal version of Office Web Apps in tandem with SQL Server. If you're looking for integration, it doesn't come any thicker than SharePoint.

What's most amazing about SharePoint is that virtually none of this functionality was part of the original plan. SharePoint was born as part of FrontPage, Microsoft's old web development system for nonprogrammers. The first version, SharePoint Team Services, built off of the FrontPage Server Extensions, providing a way for workers to easily build ad hoc websites for projects. SharePoint Team Services was a decent solution for the day, but it did one thing very right: It provided a way for workers to create their own project websites without any admin interference, freeing them to collaborate effortlessly and just get to work.

Clearly, this level of freedom inspired users, and they began doing things with SharePoint that the software's designers never anticipated. The happy ending to all this is that SharePoint was then modified to meet the needs of its users. I don't believe there's a more clear-cut example of use driving design anywhere in the software industry.

In SharePoint 2010, the product has been enhanced in some unexpected ways. It not only integrates with Office Web Apps but also with the traditional PC-based Office applications, which can seamless interact with SharePoint-based content in exciting ways. For example, you can access SharePoint-based content via the Backstage UI in each application. You can do things like broadcast PowerPoint presentations—hosted on SharePoint—over the web to remote users. It's pretty darn elegant.

An improved SharePoint Workspace application (formerly called Groove Workspace) lets you access SharePoint-based content offline, which is a huge boon to mobile workers. There's also SharePoint integration in Office Mobile, letting truly mobile users access SharePoint-based content from their Windows Mobile (and, later this year, Windows Phone) devices. Both are truly impressive.

SharePoint 2010 also includes nods to the non-Microsoft world. Sites based on SharePoint 2010 play nice with non-Microsoft browsers, like Firefox and Chrome, and the sites you create work an awful lot like a social networking service, complete with wiki capabilities and even Twitter-like status updates. (And God help me, I almost wrote "like a traditional social networking service" there, in case you also weren't aware at how fast time is suddenly elapsing.)

Everything that's great about SharePoint is still great, and it's as easy as ever for users to create their own sites, communities, and document libraries. Search is better than ever, with excellent performance. The interface, now based on the ribbon UI from Office 2007 and 2010, is pleasant to my eyes, and I even like the default site layout, though it's still very clearly a SharePoint-created site, as always.

And I'm only touching the surface here. For all of the teeth gnashing and hand wringing over Microsoft's supposedly dwindling influence around the world, SharePoint proves that the company listens to its customers and still delivers solutions that the competition can't touch. Sure, it's not the exciting poster child that many (myself included) will be covering as Office 2010 launches this week. But SharePoint 2010 is the real deal, a stealthy win for the hearts and minds of users, and a surprisingly diverse platform suitable for businesses of all sizes. You're definitely going to want to pay attention to this one.

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