The only thing clear about Microsoft's ongoing remake of its collaborative software strategy is that large corporations can expect it to require yet another round of expensive infrastructure upgrades.
Everything else about the plan looks like an unmade bed, customers and industry experts say.
"Their collaboration strategy doesn't look clear or cohesive, and it requires rip and replace starting with Windows Server 2003," says Bruce Elgort, manager of MIS strategic business operations for Sharp Microelectronics, Washington. Elgort is in the process of replacing Microsoft Exchange with IBM Corp./Lotus Domino. "Microsoft had a mail-centric collaborative strategy and maybe they finally realized that was a bad architecture. But I wasn't going to risk my organization on new Microsoft technology."
Only two years ago, Microsoft's collaboration platform and development environment was based on Exchange Server 2000, its Web Store back end and a Web conferencing add-on server. Since then, a series of shifts have made that Exchange-based platform obsolete, even before some 70 percent of Exchange customers had found a reason to upgrade to it.
Today's collaboration strategy shifts toward Microsoft's historic strengths: the operating system and Office. However, that change requires a major shuffling of the company's products. Parts of Exchange are being moved to Windows Server 2003, Office System 2003 has become the focal client interface for collaboration, Web conferencing support remains unsettled, a new universal data store is in the works, and Exchange now is slated to be an e-mail engine and mobile device gateway.
While pieces of the platform can be used a la carte, the whole of its parts has yet to take shape.
"It's a fairly disjointed message, and I have to believe there is fragmentation within Microsoft," says Dwight Davis, an analyst with Summit Strategies, referring to the fact that collaboration technologies are spread out over a number of product teams within Microsoft.
"You definitely need a map to keep up," says Robert Mahowald, research manager for collaboration at IDC. "Microsoft has to explain why this stuff has moved out of Exchange and why IT has to set it all up again in a different place. From a product perspective, they are putting things where they need to be, but they have to explain how it all ties together."
Driving Microsoft's evolution has been the company's .Net Web services initiative and a shift to support contextual collaboration, which is the ability to embed collaborative components such as instant messaging and presence directly into applications. The company now insists that services such as instant messaging, team workspaces and conferencing need to be platform services and not confined to a single application.
In addition, Microsoft is trying to keep pace with rival IBM/Lotus, which in January surprised the industry and Microsoft with how far along it is with its own efforts to cast its Domino platform, and software for instant messaging, conferencing and team workspaces as components that run on WebSphere.
"We understand where this criticism of being disjointed is coming from," says Microsoft's Dan Leach, lead product manager for information worker communication. "This is a progression for us, a transition. We are still working on making sure it all fits together. It is a complicated environment, and that is why you see the options that are available today."
To pull those options together companies eventually will need to upgrade not only operating systems on servers and desktops (for those not on Windows XP), but also Office, with its new InfoPath forms-based XML data-collection and sharing applications, and Exchange Server. Customers also will need to deploy two add-on Windows Server 2003 modules: Greenwich, which will provide instant messaging and presence information, and Windows SharePoint Services, for creating team workspaces.
Microsoft will begin to build the platform with a combination of instant messaging, Web conferencing and team sharing software. It's establishing those as base operating system services that can be integrated into any application running on Windows.
In January, Microsoft spent $200 million on Web-conferencing vendor PlaceWare Inc. after realizing its Exchange Conferencing Server was not adequate for its plans. The company immediately started a business unit dedicated to real-time communication, which controls PlaceWare and Greenwich.
The business unit's focus will be on audio and video collaboration using standards such as Session Initiation Protocol and SIP for Instant Messaging and Presence Leveraging Extensions (SIMPLE) to foster integration.
In March, the company rebranded its SharePoint Team Services as Windows SharePoint Services and moved them from Office XP into the operating system. The SharePoint Services let users set up online ad-hoc team sharing spaces and will complement SharePoint Portal Server for sharing documents companywide. To move that sharing over the firewall, Microsoft is partnering with peer-to-peer software maker Groove Networks Inc. and has made an US$88 million investment in that company.
Experts say Microsoft still has to explain how Greenwich will be licensed, how PlaceWare will be absorbed and decide if Groove or standard interfaces based on Web services will be the way to extend collaboration environments outside a corporation.
Microsoft also has to explain a platformwide universal file system based on the Yukon technology currently in beta testing and coming in the next version of SQL Server. The technology is intended to foster access to data from anywhere on the network and will be used in the operating system and in Kodiak, a version of Exchange Server under development.
"Microsoft needs to stitch all this together from a logical vision and physical deployment standpoint," says Matt Cain, an analyst with Meta Group Inc. "Clearly Exchange is not the focal point anymore."