2014-10-April-McLoughlin.jpgIf Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella thought he was doing iPad users a favor by offering them Office support, all he accomplished was opening up a great big can of worms called collaboration, prompting some to argue that SharePoint has had its day.

And while changes to Office don't equate changes to SharePoint, the iPad launch spurred on a broader discussion amongst critics of the faults with SharePoint's mobile collaboration capabilities.

SharePoint’s Critics

The offer of Office on the iPad appeared to many as a too late and half-hearted attempt to catch the collaboration train. The same critics didn't spare SharePoint, calling collaboration beyond the firewall a dismal affair.

One of the companies that used the occasion to point out what it saw as Microsoft’s collaboration problems was Huddle. Reacting to the launch of Office for iPad, Alastair Mitchell, CEO and cofounder of Huddle had this to say:

They say if you can’t beat them join them! Today we finally see Microsoft make a move to support the mobile workforce, competing with the likes of Google Docs by providing a mobile-enabled and simultaneous-editing office suite. Maybe one day we’ll also see Microsoft make its core enterprise collaboration platform -- SharePoint -- sufficiently mobile and able to support a workforce that collaborates across the firewall, but I won’t hold my breath!"

If that’s fightin’ talk, then Huddle’s other Cofounder and EVP for Strategy, Andy McLoughlin, was also in fighting form when we spoke with him late last week.

And while some might see SharePoint as a "formidable enterprise collaboration platform," McLoughlin and Mitchell would not be among them.

SharePoint Mobile Support

The first thing that McLoughlin pointed out was that the release of Office for iPad was two and a half years late. Office 365 users have been waiting for this since the launch of Office 365 with SharePoint Online and as iPad has become the dominant mobile tool in the enterprise, the lack of Office support has been a major drawback.

While this has no direct impact on SharePoint, McLoughlin did draw a parallel with SharePoint's continued problems with mobile support and collaboration beyond the firewall:

If I were a SharePoint user of 2013 or 2010 behind the firewall, I would be thinking that this tool (SharePoint) doesn’t support me (as a mobile worker) despite the fact the company I work for has shelled out hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, to install this. I'd be kind off annoyed that the support isn’t there."


Office for iPad

The problem for Microsoft, he said, was that in spite of its cloud strategy, it still only supports itself and those of Microsoft resellers, rather than reaching out to third-party vendors to connect SharePoint beyond the firewall:

You’ve got to applaud that Microsoft now has a cloud strategy, but I think that they’ve shown so far that they either support themselves or support through resellers. We’ve also seen some incredible downtime over the past year, when Office 365 [with SharePoint Online] has gone done for hours at a time.

If I'm CIO of a bank or a government agency, I’d be looking at that and going ‘That’s great, guys, but its not good enough for us yet’ -- you’re not providing an enterprise-ready service yet."

This brings up two of the problems that all cloud vendors must face and that Microsoft will have to tackle as well.

[Microsoft] is facing the dual problems that all cloud vendors face, notably around trust, and then, secondly, around convincing CIOs that Microsoft can provide a service that is better than CIOs can provide for themselves ...."

Mobile SharePoint and Collaboration

According to McLoughlin, Microsoft is far from being able to provide that service. Though SharePoint works well for people using full versions of Office on their desktops and laptops -- collaborating on Word files, Excel spreadsheets or PowerPoint slide decks -- it currently falls flat in the mobile landscape.

For mobile users to collaborate, they have to dial in to a virtual private network (VPN), sometimes using a SecureID or other two-factor authentication before being able to access the contacts with whom they want to communicate.

Compare this to some of the other available enterprise collaboration tools that enable real time communication with co-workers on smartphones or iPad.

While Office Web Apps -- which are considerably easier to use since they were pulled under the Office.com umbrella -- enable collaboration to some extent, they require expensive volume license versions of Office in order to be legal.

Microsoft's Satya Nadella annoucning Office for iPad.jpg

In spite of SharePoint 2013's enhanced collaboration abilities, limitations still exist. Yes, outside users can be granted access to specific documents and objects within specific libraries. Yes, ordinary users can invite these external users in and then remove the access after completion of the business. But this security measure requires the external users to have a Microsoft or Office 365 account in order to remove the access.

According to a Huddle blog post on this subject, “every external user you share who isn’t on Office 365, they are logging in with their consumer e-mail address and credentials — so if your external party leaves their organization, they can still access any information you’ve shared with them."

SharePoint and the Cloud

Does SharePoint Online effectively deal with this? The answer appears to be no. According to McLoughlin it will be very difficult to place SharePoint in the cloud in the first place.

Putting aides issues of trust, which are also significant, a lot of SharePoint implementations are deeply tied up with the other systems and processes that people are using in-house. To move to the cloud would mean also trying to connect these systems to the cloud, especially when you are talking about old legacy systems that don’t really have open APIs and are not cloud enabled."

The cloud has raised other problems as well, including the many newer vendors that have emerged and developed that are offering far more agile versions of the functions that SharePoint offers.

If [enterprises] are looking to do records management or document management in the cloud then obviously Huddle is an option, but you’ve also got the likes of SpringCM or Alfresco.

When you are talking about more collaborative teams, then you’ve still got Huddle, but then a bunch of other project management tools that can be accessed at will. For things like content and content management you have players like Box. The great thing about the cloud is that people can choose a bunch of tools that best serve their needs."

There is no fundamental reason why SharePoint shouldn’t develop outside the firewall and make third-party collaboration easier.

We’ve been having this conversation for the past six or seven years -- discussing why users can't work across the firewall. Firstly, SharePoint was always designed as an internal tool and was designed for internal teams, which it does pretty well."

Secondly, there is the licensing issue. People buy licenses for either on-premises or in the cloud. Whichever you buy ties you to an enterprise licensing scheme. Extending that to third parties is incredibly hard and not particularly cost effective.

Future Options

McLoughlin doesn’t expect CIOs to throw in the SharePoint towel and start over with more agile collaboration platforms. Apart from the massive investment that many enterprises have put into SharePoint, there is also the fact that, in many cases, it reaches into all departments and all existing legacy systems making a complete change near impossible.

If there are clients that have moved wholesale to Huddle from SharePoint, there are just as many examples where the two, or SharePoint and another collaboration platform, are running side by side.

With our connector service, we are enabling enterprises get the best ROI by using SharePoint with Huddle running beside it.

Doing this they can use SharePoint for the long term storage and compliance and Huddle for the more nimble team collaboration, external sharing and sync.”

No doubt we will be return to this topic again. For Microsoft, the discussion around this and other SharePoint-related issues can only help it improve SharePoint in the cloud and plot out its progress for the future.