In the semi-humble opinions of most of us pundits, SharePoint has been one of Redmond’s most underutilized platforms in the past few years. Basically, it’s an intranet in a can, and you must admit that Microsoft did a truly excellent job making SharePoint as easy to use as it is. Then, suddenly, innovation leveled off. For how long, we were left to wonder?
Well, wonder no more. The beast is awake and doing its favorite thing: slapping new front-end interfaces on loads of its own components, thus birthing a new platform. In this case, Microsoft has announced that it will use WSS (Windows SharePoint Services) as a front-end for new functionality that it intends to roll out across its MBS (Microsoft Business Solutions) suite, which includes mostly acquired products such as Great Plains accounting, Navision and Axapta ERP, as well as Microsoft’s CRM application.
Microsoft will infuse WSS with about 30 popular business process templates. These will function as a framework of Web parts that administrators can tailor to their specific needs using SharePoint’s tool set. The templates will also front specific application features contained within MBS.
So not only does this move MBS into the background behind a sexy and easily implemented front-end, it also opens the door for Microsoft’s slew of ISV partners to use the same platform to front their applications. All in a fashionable “portal” metaphor that’s all the rage these days, and, if Microsoft pulls it off, mostly without the need for specialized Web programming talent.
You’ve got to hand it to Microsoft: This promise is attractive as hell. Sure, you’ll have to dish out bucks for the MBS components you don’t have now, and probably fork over some more shekels to upgrade the ones you have, but it still provides the appearance (and possibly even the mathematical reality) of leveraging software you already own to provide new and improved integration for users. IT managers love that, and so do their bosses.
And if Redmond actually pulls this off the right way, it really will be a value-add new platform. Navision and Axapta are full of truly powerful features; they’re just a pain to learn. But if you drop a number of customizable, working process templates in front of them, you can leverage immediate buy-in without waiting to overcome a learning curve. So it’s actually in Microsoft’s best interest to give us what we’re looking for this time.
The question is, Microsoft, can you pull it off? First, you folks in Redmond will need highly tested and working templates -- not your strong suit.
Beyond templates, though, you’ll need tools to customize those templates and even create new ones. And finally, you’ll need new IT tools. MBS requires the addition of several new servers and platforms, so staff-starved IT staffers at midsize companies are going to be leery of not only adding that new workload, but also the additional complexity of an overlying template architecture. MOM (Microsoft Operations Manager) is going to have to get quite a bit smarter, and it can’t cost all that much more or you’ll face rebellion.
I’ll be tracking Microsoft’s MBS progress on my new SMB IT blog. If you’ve got an opinion or an MBS experience you’d like to share, feel free to weigh in.