Friday, May 23, 2008

Lessons from Microsoft SharePoint

I spent too much time today wrestling with Microsoft SharePoint 2007. It's not the first time.

I know it very well, and I say 80% of it is disastrous. It's a poor document management system if you stick to Office 2008, and worthless for any other file format or application. It's a feeble, miserable, file server. The collaboration tools are pointless and largely unused. Configuring navigation for SharePoint sites and subsites makes me yearn for the days of V.42bis modems and Hayes commands. You can't create a stable hyperlink to a SharePoint document without knowning an arcane trick. There's nothing of value left from Vermeer/FrontPage -- SharePoint's distant ancestor.

I think Word is a disaster too.

So how do they sell?

SharePoint, I'm told, has been fantastically successful, a real money spinner for Microsoft. Word alone would make any corporate wealthy.

So much for my marketing sense. I am from Neptune, the world is from Venus.

That's a lesson, but not the one I'm thinking of.

There is 20% of SharePoint that's interesting. That's the SharePoint "List" -- and a very nice Feed implementation. (Ok, if you use Windows Live Writer and tweak the default category setting the blog bit works.)

The Feeds are quite nice (though they only works after SP 1 is applied), but the List holds our lesson.

I'm told the implementation is more peculiar than this, but to a first approximation SharePoint can be considered as a thin client toolkit for creating and manipulating SQLServer tables. Microsoft Access will link to them, and read and write to the linked tables. You can do some simple lookups from one table to anohter (scope is site limited). You can revise and extend tables quite readily, building on your data model as needed. There's a quite good web GUI for user views of the data, and a somewhat powerful but semi-broken Excel like datasheet view for quick editing.

Whereas the document management system feels like it was hurled out a window to meet a deadline, the list facilities feel like someone thought very hard about how they might work.

Here's the curious bit. When you have a tool like this, you discover that a lot of knowledge that can be lost in static documents, or buried away in spreadsheets, or abandoned in Access databases, can be made dynamic and expressive as a SharePoint List. The documents become appendages to a collection of lists, and the lists can be extended and used even as the documents are forgotten.

Lists, of course, can be edited by multiple contributors since locks are on rows, rather than on a file.

It's a different way of passing knowledge around. Nothing too fancy, no semantic web, just a limited relational model, some useful data types, some links, some lookups, some web views. Yet, it works. It's interesting. It feels, unexpectedly, like the future.

That's the lesson of SharePoint. The habits of a print world live with us, but gradually we're discovering different ways to express and share knowledge in an almost computable form.

I still think SharePoint is a bloody mess, but there's something promising buried in the muck and mire.

1 comment:

Ellen said...

I am most interested in two items:
How to create a relative document link. I successfully create relative links to lists and sites, but not documents.

I also cannot edit the Notes field in data sheet view, although I can in standard view. How odd!

Any help would be greatly appreciated.