Microsoft's Bill Gates Monday opened the first ever SharePoint Conference by anointing SharePoint Server 2007 the key to the company's collaboration future and ripping rival IBM/Lotus.
Gates also said SQL Server will become the common data storage platform for all Microsoft server applications in order to create one programming and backup model for storage and said the Windows platform would have a variety of workflow engines for the foreseeable future.
Microsoft has gathered 1,300 IT professionals and partners in Bellevue, Washington, to kick-start interest in SharePoint Server 2007, which is due to ship later this year when Office 2007 is made available to corporate users. Beta 2 of the platform is due before the end of June.
"The key point is that SharePoint is becoming the key platform for collaboration of all types," said Gates during his 45-minute keynote address. "When people look back on what we are doing with Office  here, the most revolutionary element will be what we are doing with SharePoint."
He said SharePoint would reshape the way people think about information sharing both inside and outside their companies.
But it was a question and answer session with attendees after the keynote where Gates smacked IBM/Lotus and outlined future plans to make SQL Server the native underlying platform for SharePoint, Exchange, meta-directory and all Microsoft server applications with data storage needs. He also said it would take some time for Microsoft to unify its workflow engines. Currently, BizTalk, SQL Server, Identity Integration Server and SharePoint are among the Microsoft products that have their own workflow engines. Microsoft is developing a workflow technology for the operating system called the Windows Workflow Foundation, but Gates did not mention it.
When an audience member asked for his views on IBM's Workplace platform and Louts Notes, Gates, with tongue-in-cheek, admitted his bias toward Microsoft before slamming his rival.
He said IBM/Lotus has done nothing new in the productivity software space since Notes founder Ray Ozzie left in 1997 to found Groove. Ozzie is now CTO at Microsoft having joined the company when it bought Groove last year.
"They have really gone back to not so much thinking about productivity software," said Gates. "Workplace. I don't know of any substantial use of Workplace that is out there.
Ironically, at the same time Gates was making his keynote, IBM/Louts announced at its user group conference in Germany that the next version of the Notes client, codenamed Hannover, would include three productivity editors for word processing, spreadsheet and presentation capabilities. The editors let Notes users create, edit and save documents natively in the OpenDocument Format (ODF) standard recently approved by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).
Microsoft is supporting its own rival "open" format in Office 2007 called Open XML and does not support ODF.
Gates went on to say when people think about comparisons of Microsoft and IBM/Lotus they should not think just about Exchange. "For messaging, Exchange is the best system, but we never turned Exchange into a collaboration platform. SharePoint is clearly our collaboration platform."
It's not that Microsoft decided against turning Exchange into a collaboration platform as much as they never succeeded when they tried in the late 1990s to infuse Exchange with instant messaging and conferencing and groom it to support collaborative applications built with easy-to-use rapid application development tools.
Gates said, "IBM has had a discontinuity. They are saying your Notes applications are not going to continue to run and we want you to move to a new environment that is some WebSphere type thing. People have had to step back and say it is not the best messaging system, Exchange has been totally focused on those scenarios, and it is not the best collaboration platform."
IBM/Lotus general manager Mike Rhodin last year announced that the company would continue to develop Lotus Notes for the foreseeable future and was committed to at least three editions beyond Notes 7.0. IBM/Lotus also is integrating Domino with Workplace so Notes applications will run on that platform.
"We are committed to the next 15 years of Notes innovation with announcements around expanding the capability of Notes to an open platform with embedded productivity tools and complete support for all exiting Notes applications," said Ed Brill, business unit executive for worldwide sales at IBM/Louts.
Clearly, Gates is pushing the battle with IBM/Lotus to another frontier.
Gates then moved onto a question about unifying storage and workflow capabilities in the Windows platform. He admitted that Microsoft's current storage model could be better.
"In terms of programming and backing things up it would be better if we could get things into a single structure. Down the road Exchange will be built entirely on SQL Server," he said.
In fact, he said getting SharePoint and Microsoft's meta-directory technology to be more native SQL Server is a hot topic within the company. "In the next major release [of SQL Server] we will take some significant steps in that direction."
Gates said workflow would be a tougher problem to solve and said Microsoft needed to support different models.
"In workflow ... we are going to let there be a little bit of variety as the state of the art develops," he said. "It is not really just workflow, it is declarative programming, model-based declarative programming, which we are investing in very heavily. But I am not pushing all the people to have one [workflow] engine yet. I think we have to go a whole generation allowing those things to get richer."
On the topic of SharePoint, Gates said the emergence of a central collaboration hub built around SharePoint is now possible due to many advances in the industry. He pointed out storage, computer performance, unified infrastructure, data analysis, and the explosion of available end-user devices, including a plug for his favorite Tablet PC that has failed to reach critical mass.
Gates drew an analogy between what Office 2007 is doing with SharePoint on the server with what Office has meant to the client as a way to explain how deeply SharePoint will become ingrained in corporate computing.
"The idea [Office running on the client] was that every worker should have the full set of tools, they should be richly consistent and you should just take them for granted," he said.
Gate said SharePoint would be the place to bring together both structured and unstructured data that could be fused into templates adapted to meet a specific business practice.
SharePoint is designed to be the foundation not only for sharing any document type produced by the Office desktop applications, but also the switching station for workflow, document routing/approval, instant messaging/presence information, business intelligence, search and electronic forms.
Microsoft also is killing Content Management Server and folding its capabilities into SharePoint, which will be pitched to corporate users as a multitask, identity-enabled engine to host collaborative sites not just for the intranet but for the extranet and Internet as well. Microsoft also plans an option to license the server per CPU so users can host Web sites on the platform.
In addition, Office 2007 plugs two glaring SharePoint holes by adding offline client capabilities through Office Groove and Outlook, and a rapid application development tool called SharePoint Designer. The server also is integrated with Visual Studio 2005 and the .Net 2.0 Framework so developers can build, and easily debug, components that Designer will use to stitch together SharePoint applications.
The SharePoint Conference runs through Thursday.