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Using SharePoint at the Olympics

Greetings, again, from Vancouver! We've had a lot of SharePoint news to cover over the last few weeks. We are, of course, thrilled that the Games have begun and that our US audience is tuning in on NBC networks and It’s been equally thrilling to watch the athletes rise to the occasion, and to experience this city erupt in celebration. It’s been beyond exhausting, but also exhilarating.

This week, I’m going to give short notice to one of the “cool” headlines of the week so that I can spend time sharing with you the good, the bad, and the ugly of our experiences with SharePoint 2010. Let’s just say that, right at this moment particularly, I’m putting the blood into bleeding edge.

This week, Microsoft announced the Windows Phone 7 Series and I could not be happier. While I’m a fanboy of the iPhone as a personal device, it’s fallen very short in its ability to support my work. I love the device, the media experience (except for the iTunes application on the PC). But I miss the pocket versions of Office applications and even of the remote desktop client that I had on my previous Windows Mobile Phones. Most of all, I am constantly stymied by the combination of the iPhone’s weak cellular electronics and the AT&T network. So I’m at a point where I will gladly set down my iPhone for one of the exciting new devices that Microsoft unveiled this week. And my iPhone contract runs out just in time! I noticed on the demonstration of the Windows Phone that SharePoint documents are featured—I really look forward to seeing how the Windows Phone integrates with SharePoint!

On the work front, we have had the opportunity to put SharePoint 2010 to test here in Vancouver to support our operations and staff and it’s been a mixed experience. I’ll take full ownership of the fact that we built a production application on top of Beta 2 bits, and there are bound to be problems, so I can only hope that all of them are solved before SharePoint is released to manufacture. On the “plus” side, SharePoint 2010 has delivered functionality and an end-user experience that is significantly improved over 2007, and has continued SharePoint’s evolution in its ability to deliver out-of-the-box solutions for enterprise collaboration.

Last autumn, we began to plan for the application that supports our transportation operation, which is responsible for getting people from “point A” to “point B” during our time here in Vancouver. For the Beijing games, we built lists on SharePoint 2007 and an Access front-end that worked very well and was delivered with minimal cost and effort. For Vancouver, we decided to host the application on a server “in the cloud,” and to use SharePoint 2010. Because of changes to our business requirements, and thanks to SharePoint 2010’s new “relational list” capabilities, we were able to build the application in a handful of hours. This represented a staggering cost savings over what would have had to be done just a few years ago, before SharePoint 2007.

Users are able to request rides and transportation managers are able to assign those rides to vehicles and drivers using SharePoint 2010’s native web interface. Training was minimal because the new user interface—yes, even with the Ribbon—is much more intuitive than in previous versions of SharePoint. The ‘pop-up’ like dialog boxes that appear when you create, view, or edit an item are particularly good at keeping users aware of where they were, and where they are. And the littlest things—like the “hover over” style that creates the drop-down edit menu when you point at an item—can make a big difference in usability.

SharePoint 2010’s “relational list” capability is definitely helpful, but it is nowhere near as feature rich as I would like. When you create a new item, for example, you can choose the item from another list to which the item is related, but you cannot “pull up” any fields from the related list. That only happens when you save the item and re-open it in “view” mode. The drop-down list with which you choose a related item is also limited—you can only show one field from the related list. I’m sure there will be lots of workarounds proposed, but the bottom line is that it’s a great feature that’s not fully baked. I can already anticipate the types of gripes we’ll hear from the community related to this long-awaited feature.

We were also disappointed with the print experience in SharePoint 2010. When you print an item from its view form, it prints very small. Hopefully this will be addressed before RTM. We had to work around it by modifying the CSS for the site.

Most of all, we were disappointed that a few “rough spots” from previous versions of SharePoint were not smoothed out—at least not by Beta 2. Certain columns are not available for use in calculated columns—the file name column in a document library for example. Finally, we had some serious issues with workflows and with problems that caused us to reboot the server every couple of days. Some of these are due to Beta, certainly, but we also found it crazy that there wasn’t an easy way for users to restart frozen workflows—the number of clicks involved is still disappointingly high. Prior to writing this column, I spent about an hour restarting a number of frozen workflows.

We had obviously hoped for a smooth experience with SharePoint 2010 Beta 2, and we didn’t get it. But as I mentioned early on, and mid-stream, these are beta bits, and that’s the risk we took given the requirements. I’m sure the errors we experienced will be addressed. And as far as features go, the lesson is also not a surprise: Microsoft has done incredible things with SharePoint 2010, but for every feature they added, they went only so far—they do have to ship a product—and there will be many customers, like us, who need that feature to do one more thing that it cannot. There will be frustrations and gripes, as there are with any new product, but in the end the out-of-box capabilities of SharePoint 2010 have been a “win” for us. And each experience we’ve had with SharePoint 2010 has been very promising. We’ll need to see what Microsoft delivers in the next few months as a final version of SharePoint 2010 to see whether Microsoft has delivered on SharePoint’s promise.

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