In the midst of all the Office 365 Groups questions and Windows updates, an interesting trend bubbled under the surface at Microsoft Ignite that remains to be answered: What’s the preferred way to build your intranet in the cloud? Microsoft won’t be answering that — it’s not in its model and never has been — so the community needs to try. And we’re doing a pretty interesting job of it.

While Microsoft has never touted SharePoint (or any of its products for that matter) as an intranet solution, the company and the ecosystem that's built up around it are releasing products and capabilities that would meet the needs of a modern intranet. We looked at Microsoft's entries into the game, now let's take a look at what some partners are doing and what the implications of all this might mean for your company.

What the Partners are Pitching

We’re seeing the product (literally) of some furious innovation on the part of a subset of small, privately-owned systems integration firms. I walked the floor at Ignite and receive a guided tour to not one, but three ready-built intranet products leveraging the Microsoft cloud — either Office 365, Azure or both. In every case, the teams showcasing these products were friendly, knowledgeable and willing to share a demonstration and deep discussion of what they had to offer. I came away impressed with all three, and with a fairly solid understanding of the strengths and limitations each product had to offer.

From a high level, there were two common threads binding these products together: 1. a commitment in every case to a rich, beautiful user experience and 2. a recognition on the part of the purveyors that their products are more geared to a specific working group than to a national or global enterprise. In other words, they’re targeted at small-to-mid market organizations and/or departmental portal scenarios… for now.

Blue Rooster Rise Foundation

The first “boxed intranet” solution that I dug into was Blue Rooster’s Rise Foundation. Rise is based in SharePoint Online, responsive and mobile-friendly — words not typically associated with SharePoint, although Microsoft has been working to change this. Quick and easy to configure, it boasts a rich UX with the sort of consumer-style mega-menu, social integration, news carousel and CSS that users are readily familiar with and won’t rebel against (and stakeholders typically associate with lengthy custom design work). 

This warmth and commonality of experience is grounded in concepts and features most users will immediately recognize and understand. That approach minimizes the user disconnect that is anathema to good UX architects, and will allow this product to find an audience just about anywhere.

RightPoint Spark

Similarly based in SharePoint Online is RightPoint’s Spark. Boasting the least traditionally “SharePoint” user experience of the products I toured at Ignite, it is built upon a “card” interface that (like Delve) borrows as heavily from Pinterest as Yammer borrows from Facebook. It too features rich social integration, with a unique feature RightPoint calls a “Book” to support formally published content.

Like Rise, Spark is engineered to be fully responsive and is built on best practices its creators assembled from previous experience on larger, corporate intranet projects. With this product, the card UX is the biggest risk to me. When Delve launched, I polled my local UX user group about similar interfaces in the past and found it (the Pinterest interface generally, not RightPoint’s product) to be very divisive. Some love it, others don’t and there’s no middle ground. Either way, its application to SharePoint is definitely innovative, and that’s an achievement worthy of some praise.

BrightStarr Unily

The third and final product I test drove was BrightStarr’s Unily. This curiously-named solution is touted as “the future of enterprise portals” by its makers and while that’s a bit boastful for my tastes, the architecture is certainly something we’d have called futuristic as recently as eighteen months ago. 

An Azure application that truly leverages the SOA aspect of Microsoft’s various cloud platforms, Unily pulls data and services from various Microsoft sources into a single, responsive interface that — like Rise and Spark — provides a consistent experience across platforms. Where the Rise UX presents a familiar look and feel to users of the commercial Internet, and Spark feels like Pinterest, the Unily UX leverages a “live tile” approach that echoes Windows.  

BrightStarr are clearly serious about intranets, and they’ve done a great job with this product. As of this writing it is still an interesting hybrid of an agency and a product company, though. That’s a point to consider that isn’t a concern with products like Infopedia. At the end of the day, the Microsoft products we covered yesterday are unquestionably enterprise software with all of the support, reliability, and regular updates we expect from a tech giant. For all that it looks and feels like Windows, Unily isn’t.

And the Crystal Ball Says…

So what does all of this mean to you, the reader? Making predictions is always dangerous. When pressed on this topic I usually invoke the wisdom of Yoda (to a chorus of nodding heads and murmurs of agreement): “Always in motion, the future is.” And it’s true — peering ahead into the space-time continuum is a dicey proposition when discussing trends around collaboration, content and productivity.

There are certain known factors that you should take into account when considering how this all affects your own strategy for internal collaboration.

First — when buying into one of these partner solutions, as with any new product or company without a deep track record, there is always an element of “buyer beware.” A packaged solution can be a smart move when matched to the right business case, but do your homework. Make sure the partner will be around to support you. Why? Because this is a new and volatile space.

Curiously, all of the partners I spoke with were known as systems integration (SI) partners — in other words, agencies and consultants — as late as the end of last year. None of them were considered product companies. That is obviously changing: Blue Rooster has made a complete pivot, positioning itself purely as a product company and getting completely out of the systems integration business. RightPoint has taken on significant outside funding, with an explicit aim to “dive deeper into product-based solutions.” It wouldn’t surprise anyone I’ve spoken with to see BrightStarr make a similar move. 

Historically, partners that have focused solely on consulting have struggled to support IP-based products beyond launch. That said, there is significant value to these consulting companies in creating a product.

The marketplace today is not what it was even two years ago. The cloud is pushing more and more smaller SI’s to this model, not least because the big software as a service (SaaS) giants like Microsoft are creating their own products — like the Next Gen Portals discussed yesterday — that cut into the traditional domain of agencies and technology consulting firms. The reality of SaaS in 2015 demands that as SI’s ostensibly develop less custom solutions, they move to a model founded on a more predictable revenue stream (e.g., recurring support services such as those attached to the sales of a product) as a baseline, augmented by high-value business services more in line with traditional management consulting. Installation, maintenance and support of the product creates a consistent and recurring revenue stream with a predictable sales cycle — the holy grail for a professional services firm.

This is one reason I like Rise Foundation. Blue Rooster’s approach of partnering with larger, financially reliable consulting firms to resell the product and provide value-added services (either as a self-contained project or part of a wider initiative) makes the most sense to me as a one-time influencer of enterprise software purchases. RightPoint’s decision to take on outside funding to further develop its product(s) is a good sign for Spark as well. It’s vital to remember that technology decisions are still business decisions — not just about who has the coolest features. When you buy one of these products, you’re also buying a partner for support. You want that partner to be reliable.

Support, dependability and resource availability are all at least as important as a one-time sticker price — especially if operationalizing your expenses is one of the reasons you’re moving your intranet to the cloud in the first place. It’s the primary difference between Microsoft’s “Next Gen” suite and the boxed intranets being supplied by its partner ecosystem. Who knows? Maybe Microsoft will buy one of those products (or even the partners who make them) and incorporate it into Office 365.

It wouldn’t be the first time. Delve is a direct descendant of the FAST acquisition, after all, and Skype for Business speaks for itself. Perhaps a truly self-contained intranet product — supported and enhanced by a popular suite of mobile applications — is in Office 365’s future. 

Until then, you could do pretty well just stitching together a suite of productivity applications from a boxed intranet solution, the Video Portal, Infopedia (soon), Delve, Yammer and Groups. It might not be enough for a global enterprise, but it’s a lot more from a baseline perspective than Microsoft’s ever made available before. If I were in the CIO’s chair, I’d at least be giving that idea a hard look.

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License Title image by  Ingrid Taylar 

Title image by Ingrid Taylar