At this week’s SharePoint Conference, Microsoft unveiled its vision for the future workplace with an emphasis on "a social workforce, cloud applications, and mobile access." During the unveiling of SharePoint 2013, Microsoft’s collaboration and social platform, Jeff Teper, Microsoft Corporate VP and the moving force behind SharePoint, demonstrated how enabling social interactions among colleagues will make them more productive. And those interactions will take place wherever people are located, in the office or on the road, supported by mobile devices running Microsoft cloud applications.
While many companies have a similar vision, few have Microsoft’s clout to deliver a complete solution. Addressing the 10,000 attendees, Teper said that "we envision a world in which social is woven into the apps you use every day, where people work together using new experiences that combine the power of social with collaboration, email and unified communications."
Here is my take on what I saw and heard at the conference:
While traditionally a packaged-software company, Microsoft is betting heavily on the cloud. During the conference sessions, Microsoft said it will continue to support on-premise software, but many of the innovations displayed will only be available in the cloud versions. For example, recently-acquired Yammer’s social capabilities were touted as a big part of Microsoft’s social strategy. But Yammer is a cloud-only application, so it is not clear what social capabilities will be available for customers who continue to use Microsoft’s on-premise software. Microsoft says it will continue to support native SharePoint social capabilities, but the demonstration of how these two overlapping and somewhat redundant set of features will work together was not yet clear from the product demonstrations.
Mobile was another big theme of the week’s conference. It is obvious that more and more people are working outside the office and a comprehensive social environment is needed to support the mobile workforce. Building on the release of its recent Surface tablet, Microsoft showed some basic demonstrations of how colleagues will interact using the tablet, but these are clearly early days for Windows 8 Mobile. In fact, Windows 8, the Surface, and SharePoint 2013 were all released in the past month, and there is still work to be done to make these pieces operate together. Reacting to these concerns, conference presenters emphasized that Microsoft’s new embrace of cloud software will enable quick enhancements through its rapid software release cycles. "No more three-year development cycles" was a phrase I heard more than once during the week.
While Microsoft clearly articulated an impressive vision, there were a number of points I left the show still pondering. First of all, what happens to those customers who want to continue to use on-premise software. Is there a really a future for them in the new world of Microsoft Online and Office 365? Secondly, what will Microsoft do to support the hundreds of millions of iOS and Android mobile device users? If Windows 8 Mobile is strategic for Microsoft, it doesn’t make sense to support iOS or Android. With its newly-articulated vision of being a software and device company, it will be interesting to see how this plays out. After all, it is really hard to have your cake and eat it too.
Thirdly, it is not clear how quickly organizations will move their core software infrastructure to the cloud. While companies such as Salesforce have proven that the cloud is a viable software delivery mechanism, many of today’s successful cloud solutions appeal to specific constituents (like sales departments), smaller organizations, or departmental initiatives. Microsoft is betting the farm that even large companies will embrace the cloud for global rollouts of core infrastructure. In my discussions with IT executives at the conference, none expressed an eagerness to be the first to bet the success of their company on this yet0unproven model. It is also not clear how much of the newly-announced social and collaboration capabilities will be available in the on-premise version of SharePoint and when that software will be available. While there were some discussions of a hybrid model of on-premise and cloud software, I didn’t hear a clear articulation of how this would work.
In short, I walked away from the conference with a sense that Microsoft has a bold vision for the future workplace, but there are a lot of questions that still need to be answered.
Author David Lavenda is a high-tech product strategy and marketing executive. He also does academic research on information overload in organizations and he is an international scholar for the Society for the History of Technology. He tweets from @dlavenda. Views expressed here are his own.
[Image: Flickr user Beni Ishaque Luthor]