How did SharePoint become the poster child for bad enterprise software?

dartboard dart
Credit: Mike Behnken

Once upon a time, a company introduced a product that was meant to revolutionize collaboration by making it easier for teams to work together. Instead of emailing files back and forth or fighting to make revisions to the same file on a shared drive somewhere, this product would give small teams a managed repository for files, complete with features like check-in/check-out, comments, and versioning.

The company was Microsoft and the product was SharePoint Team Services. The company already had a slightly different product, SharePoint Portal Server, which was designed for intranets, but Team Services was an add-on to Office that allowed small groups to set up individual team sites. 

Over the years, the SharePoint product line went through many revisions and brand changes -- most notably, many IT departments realized that they'd better have a centralized SharePoint server to manage the proliferation of team sites -- and Microsoft kept adding features that weren't directly related to collaboration, like enterprise search.

Along the way, Microsoft created a pretty big hit product. At the last SharePoint conference in November 2012, Microsoft claimed that it sells more than $2 billion worth of SharePoint licenses per year. That's every year.

Not all of these licenses represent deployments -- SharePoint user licenses are included in various bundles that big enterprise customers buy for Exchange and other products -- but even so, SharePoint is one of Microsoft's biggest success stories of the last decade.

So how did SharePoint-bashing become common sport among Silicon Valley startups?

Collaboration startup Box was early to the game with a high-profile billboard on Highway 101 in Silicon Valley, but nowadays SharePoint is the product that everybody loves to hate.

Take Huddle, another hot collaboration and file-sharing startup that has become the number-one cloud product used by the U.K. government, and is making inroads in the United States as well.

In an interview with CITEworld last week, Huddle CEO Alaistair Mitchell told me that he bonded with the company's new chief marketing officer, Chris Boorman, over their failed SharePoint deployments at their past companies. 

"In principle, it's a great idea," said Mitchell. "As a user, my personal opinion is that it's very hard to use, it takes enormous resources to make usable. It was designed in an era when people try to keep things inside the firewall, but today they need to share things with partners and suppliers."

Before he started Huddle, Mitchell ran a 300-person team at Dunhumby, a U.K. company that manages merchandising for huge brands like Kroger and Coca-Cola. There, he spent several million dollars on a SharePoint deployment. Six months later, it had "zero adoption," he says.

Mitchell and Boorman told me that 30% of Huddle deployments are replacements for SharePoint, and that much of their success with the U.K. government comes from SharePoint replacements.

Egnyte CEO Vineet Jain also had faint praise for SharePoint in our interview with him last week.

Egnyte is not as focused on collaboration like Huddle and Box -- rather, it provides both cloud-based and on-premise storage (partly through a deal with NetApp) for files, making it easy for employees to access them from different devices in different locations. 

Even so, Jain said that Egnyte ends up effectively replacing SharePoint in many situations.

"Over time, you end up taking that entire document repository and those documents into Egnyte, and that becomes your system of record. And a system of collaboration. And you end up basically replacing SharePoint. Because fundamentally the problem with SharePoint is, even though Microsoft has thrown everything at it, it is still designed and appears and feels like an intranet deployment."

He continued, "That's one of the banes of SharePoint, people have it, but when you look at how many people actually want to use it? Very few.

So can Microsoft change that perception?

Tomorrow, Microsoft will unveil the latest editions of the Office family, including SharePoint 2013 and SharePoint Online. Microsoft seems to be paying a lot more attention to the end-user experience this go-around. For instance, the process of sharing from Office 2013 to SkyDrive (Microsoft's free online storage service for consumers) will look and feel a lot like sharing from Office 2013 to SharePoint (the tool to do this is called SkyDrive Pro, but it's essentially the outgrowth of Groove, Ray Ozzie's old company.)

Microsoft is also learning some important lessons from Yammer, another hot Silicon Valley collaboration startup that it acquired last year. According to Yammer CTO Adam Pisoni, Microsoft is embracing Yammer's approach of watching what users are actually doing with a product -- and then making quick changes if they're not adopting a new feature.

With these kinds of changes, maybe this will finally be the version of SharePoint that end-users love. Or at least tolerate. 

If Microsoft wants to stop the incursion of startups who view replacing failed SharePoint deployments as a business case, the company better hope so.

From CIO: 8 Free Online Courses to Grow Your Tech Skills
View Comments
Join the discussion
Be the first to comment on this article. Our Commenting Policies