Can Microsoft turn SharePoint into a Web player?

Microsoft Corp. plans to bolster SharePoint's Internet capabilities in the hopes of penetrating a Web content management market that it has, so far, been largely locked out of.

Microsoft is also creating two new versions of SharePoint 2010 aimed at Webmasters. These new offerings -- one, an on-premises server for small to medium-sized companies, the other, a Web version hosted in Microsoft's data centers -- will cost half the price of existing versions, according to Kirk Hoenigsberger, general manager of SharePoint. He declined to release exact prices.

Moreover, companies using either of these Web-oriented versions of SharePoint won't need to buy Client Access Licenses (CALs) for internal employees who manage or update SharePoint-based Web sites, said Hoenigsberger. The cost of SharePoint's CALs tends to greatly outweigh the cost of the SharePoint server license.

Wildly popular inside the corporate firewall for sharing files and for internal portals, SharePoint has made little headway as a back-end technology for Web sites or extranets.

According to an IDC survey in July of 262 American corporate IT users, just 8% of respondents said they were using SharePoint for their Web sites, compared to 36% using it for internal portals and 51% using it for collaborative team sites.

Slashing the price of SharePoint for the Web was an imperative, said Alan Pelz-Sharpe, an analyst with CMS Watch. Using SharePoint today for Web sites tends to be "shockingly expensive," he said. "The pricing was nuts. We've had customers tell us that they could have gone and bought Documentum for the price of [using SharePoint for the Web]."

There are other problems, according to IDC analyst Melissa Webster: poor positioning of SharePoint for the Web, the fact that many Web sites are based on Java rather than Microsoft's .Net technology, and the number of small vendors offering cheap or free apps with capabilities that SharePoint can't match out-of-the-box.

Pelz-Sharpe is more succinct. "As a Web solution? It's pretty poor," he said. "SharePoint 2007 is a document management system that you can expose to the Web. It's not something we would recommend to a client."

Some sites use SharePoint

Granted, there are a number of Web sites already running today on SharePoint, some of them quite attractive and even flashy: HawaiianAir.com, Ferrari.com, Volvocars.com, the Chicago tourism site, ChooseChicago.com, and many others.

TopSharePoint.com has almost 600 examples.

The problem, said Michael Sampson, a New Zealand-based consultant and former analyst with Ferris Research, is that companies like Ferrari have "obviously spent carloads of money in order to make it [Ferrari.com] not look like SharePoint at all."

Another issue is its lack of native compliance with W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). To ensure that SharePoint Web sites can work with software used by blind or visually-impaired visitors, said Sampson, requires "spending more money."

Koenigsbauer admits that getting SharePoint 2007-based sites to comply with WCAG required users to buy "partner-led" solutions. However, "in SharePoint 2010, we are doing a much better job and now fully support WCAG." He added that SharePoint 2010 also has "full XHTML compliance" to ensure Web pages don't break or look different under different Web browsers.

SharePoint 2010 also includes multi-lingual support, which Koenigsberger said will let companies localize Web sites without extensive recoding. And SharePoint 2010 will include built-in support for rich media such as video, audio and Silverlight 3 in order to help make SharePoint Web sites more attractive and interactive.

Silverlight 2010 will also make it easier for users to edit Web content in Microsoft Word, and have those changes updated with the formatting retained.

Finally, Microsoft is readying FAST Search for Internet Business to power Web site search. FAST is already used to power a number of Web sites such as BestBuy.com, Dell.com, NewYorkTimes.com and others. Some customers are already using FAST with SharePoint today, said Koenigsberger, though he declined to offer up specific names.

Praise for SharePoint 2010

Pelz-Sharpe likes SharePoint 2010's new Web features. "There are a lot of improvements, I will give them credit there," he said.

He doesn't think SharePoint will make much headway against high-end Web content management systems such as Interwoven, Vignette and Day, though, he quickly added, "in fairness, Microsoft is not trying to go after that market."

Rather, SharePoint's target will be non-Web-centric companies, many of whom have let their Web sites or extranets languish since the dot-com crash, according to Koenigsberger. "A lot of these sites are still strictly HTML, not personalized, dynamic or even database-driven," he said. "We see a big move starting to happen now."

Sid Probstein, CTO of search and analytics firm, Attivio Inc., and a former technology executve at FAST, said that SharePoint faces formidable competition from the many open-source and SaaS tools such as Plone and Joomla.

"SharePoint might now make sense for a Microsoft shop, but there are so many free alternatives," he said.

Koenigsberger argued that the headache of maintaining various, non-integrated apps is ultimately more costly than SharePoint. "People get frustrated when they have so many point solutions that don't talk to each other," he said. "So we think the TCO [Total Cost of Ownership] value proposition is there for SharePoint."

This story, "Can Microsoft turn SharePoint into a Web player?" was originally published by Computerworld.

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