Monday, October 26, 2009

Pre-beta Office Highlights

Bits and pieces of news on the suite keep coming in as they should, so here’s a bird’s-eye view on the latest ones.

(i) Security improvements and workarounds

Office is not devoid of the imperishable vulnerability – hack – patch cycles, and the strategic approach that Microsoft will be taking with the 2010 rollout is layered protection, structured as follows:

- File block (enhanced)

Office will retain the “broad-brush solution” introduced for the 2007 generation and backported to 2003. “File block” allows both individual users and network administrators to block certain file types.

- File validation

Introduced for Publisher 2007, validation of older, pre-XML formats will now acquire a suite-wide reach.

- Protected View

If you can’t beat them, sandbox them. Files downloaded from the web or opened in Outlook will be handled in the “Protected View” mode, i.e. isolated in a read-only environment. The implications are yet to show through, and the apparent ones are fewer fuzzy messages and a somewhat greater load on the system.

(ii) The Office button

To cut a long story short, the black sheep in the interface will become history. It won’t irretrievably go away though, but will move to the ribbon to house Backstage View – the brand-new usability concept by the Office team. There’s a whole long story behind it, which in a nutshell is an aspiration to divide, conquer and subsequently expose two types of functionality – things we do with a file from within and from without. The without part is thus represented by the Backstage View, now to be labeled “File” (which again has a long quest-like evolution background, starting with the cleverly disguised Office button up to a bow towards the 2003 visual/muscle memory pattern, revamped by both the Ribbon and the Backstage concepts). An interesting feature about the Backstage is a triple-check approach to saving changes, something like “are you sure you are not sure you want to save changes?” As facetious as I might appear here, I still believe it is a useful feature. Not once has Autosave – literally – saved people’s skins. What we will now be offered in addition to that is the ability to recover work that erroneously remained unsaved by accessing the autosaved versions sitting in the Backstage.

(iii) Web apps

The technical preview release has sparked heated debate on whether Office web apps can compete with the other options, namely Google Docs. Reviews range from disappointed to expectant. The minuses include the very limited functionality available in Office web apps as of now and some glitches in performance. High fidelity view, on the other hand, seems to be delivering its promises. The edit functionality is available with Excel and PowerPoint only (yet), and OneNote remains left out. Significant changes will definitely follow, although the capabilities demonstrated by Excel in particular have prompted a certain share of “Google threat” sentiments among the early previewers. The Office Web Apps demo, by the way, is to be found here.

Microsoft Rethinking Office Distribution Strategies

Earlier this month, Microsoft announced a cluster of changes in the way Office 2010 will reach the end-user. Routinely, this has generated discussion. Some did not hesitate to jump at the conclusion that Office is trying to scramble to a standing position, facing ramped-up competition from certain free productivity suites. The standpoint has become so trite that it passes off as by default valid, but I somehow fail to attach the above point to the situation at hand. In fact, I am pretty much happy with what Zdnet’s Mary-Jo Foley suggests – at the moment, the biggest competition for Office is Office itself, in its pre-existing versions.

With Office 2010, Microsoft is taking on a new distribution stractic concerning new PCs to be purchased after the release. These PCs will ship with Office pre-installed so that the user will have to activate it via a key provided with a single-license product card. According to Microsoft, this is beneficial in several ways, including increased ecologic awareness. This, however, implies an end to the practice of doing multiple installations with a single multimedia disc – a danger that some of the update-aware users have already been able to sniff.

Another part of the plan aimed at reducing the pressure from ye olde versions is flattening Office Works, notorious for its incompatibility issues, and replacing it with Office Starter. This offering is supposed to guide the users into 2010, i.e. familiarize them with the consistently promoted Ribbon interface (a concept already settled so deep in the netizens’ minds that they are ready to mistakenly spot it in weird places, e.g. the revamped UI for the next version of Mozilla Firefox) and ultimately walk them along the upgrade path. Just like Works, Office Starter is free (ad-based in fact), which has somehow managed to lead to a couple of misconceptions. In reality, Office was by no means conceived as a light-weight alternative to the full-fledged package. I am pretty sure it will not offer anything that would interfere with its primary function of an upgrade incentive. What will be offered are just significantly trimmed Word and Excel, so I have some trouble figuring out where the speculations are coming from. Similar considerations by the way are likely hold true for the web-based package – especially given the fact that until there is a public beta, it is yet really difficult to tell how perceivable a gap is going to separate the web and the desktop.

Finally, alterations are going to affect the trial and full Office downloads. These will become “click-to-run” offerings that are expected to make getting Office via the web a quicker and easier process. Again, pre-testing reviews from early this summer do not provide a reliable insight into the matter.

An Aesopian bottom line here will traditionally warn one against avoid crying wolf before it is at least remotely in sight.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

SharePoint, Google Sites and Data Liberation

Last week saw another round of the Google vs. Microsoft rivalry, which by itself is hardly surprising. References to the turbulent relationships between the two simply impose wartime metaphors, even if you get down to something as distanced from belles-lettres and figures of speech as plain factual reporting. In fact, some of the belligerent vocabulary makes up the terminology inventory utilized by the parties themselves. Examples are not really hard to come by – take Google’s Data Liberation Front for instance. If you don’t like your data stuck in a proprietary system of any kind, argues Google, why not move it in and out of Google-provided services as you please. It’s not quantum physics to decipher the Data Oppressor’s identity, by the way, and the latest news from Google has been logically perceived as a go at chipping a chunk off the major feather in the Oppressor’s cap, also known as SharePoint.

The latest report from the Front is the emergence of Google Sites Data API that can be used to liberate data from ECM systems like MS SharePoint or Lotus Notes and even, some believe, the respective vendors from their customers. However, many analysts just don’t see the latter happening. This round of the “Google the SharePoint killer” talk is all the same lukewarm and does not add substance to the discussion. In fact the subject was pretty much exhausted at the point where the Google Sites service was a brand-new announcement.

The overall conclusion made back then and continuously confirmed now is that in managing corporate collaboration, Google just doesn’t have it, just like Microsoft does not seem to have it in search. Google Sites (a reincarnation of the slick Jotspot wiki service) are unable to live up to too many requirements for sizeable enterprises to even consider the options they offer. The thing is that having data trapped in something you exercise control over is way less scary than letting your data roam free and subsequently finding yourself locked out of the very things that keep the business intact. However, I do not mean to debunk Google’s “live free” effort – for moderately-sized business, a quick and low-cost startup is a valid option that may turn out critical to their operation.

The bottom line I would like to draw here is that there’s no point in reading too much into developments that are not even in sight and won’t be there in the foreseeable future. Different companies are good at different things, and their trying to dent each other’s armor will hopefully make them more flexible.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

SharePoint Sprouting More Roots

Thursday this week, the attendees of the Project Conference in Phoenix, AZ, repeatedly broke out into applause at certain points through the Project 2010 demo. Announcing Project 2010, Chris Capossela pointed out that the upcoming release probably qualifies as the biggest one in a whole decade. By the looks of it, it might as well be plausible since certain parts of Projects have been reported to be craving for facelifts for years. A declaration of change by itself does not have to equate to dramatic improvement, and not all decisions are bulletproof, but their being taken means that we are going to have to adjust to an overhauled environment. Applause? Probably later.
Following the Microsoft tradition, the focus areas and key enhancements in Project have been visualized in a pie chart featuring four segments. The overall impression one gets following the apparent logic of the alterations is first of all a clearly traceable business orientation and, which is an equally important consideration, a marked emphasis on developing the SharePoint ecosystem. The above has so far resulted in a rethink in terms of UI and design, as well as a number of mergers with previously acquired wildcards (think Groove or FAST Search or PerformancePoint, and feel free to continue).
First off, the headlines for the look-and-feel part of the pre-announcement reveal nothing ground-breaking in the way that Microsoft is still sticking to the stated commitment of ensuring consistent user experience across devices and products. This certainly includes the Ribbon (which in Project is “more like Excel with scheduling”), new views (timeline view, long since overdue) and web-based project editing. Also, an interesting feature in this regard is user controlled scheduling.
The centripetal arrangement patterns are quite fascinating to observe, the center being enterprise users and enterprise content. Fundamentally important in the Project talk is the SharePoint reference. Project 2010 sits on top of SharePoint 2010, which by default implies SharePoint deployment in enterprise settings. Naturally, the 64-bit-only requirement holds as true as ever.
In understanding changes applicable to Project 2010 the key is deeper integration – remember the seamless user experience stipulation. This entails, on the one hand, integration with Office, Exchange and things like Visual Studio Team Foundation Server. On the other hand, there is the “strategic acquisitions coming into play” factor. This time it’s the emergence of unified Project and Portfolio unified management, which again aims at both simplicity and consistency.
Project 2010 will ship in three editions: Standard, Professional and Project Server.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Search in SharePoint

As hungry for any bit of additional info concerning the upcoming SharePoint 2010 as the community is, in a pre-SharePoint-conference world, we have to make do with the scarce bits and pieces we have been offered by Microsoft. The Sneak Peek is what it is – just a peek, but there are some things an informed visitor can project to form a rough silhouette of the future make of the leading ECM system. My guesstimation is that search is one of the more important parts of that silhouette.

It has been a while since Microsoft announced their intention to enhance search in SharePoint 2010 by leveraging FAST ESP (which is quite promising, if not surprising – the FAST Search & Transfer team went on to form a considerable part of Microsoft’s Enterprise Search Group right after the 2008 takeover). Hopefully, the improvements via the FAST technologies will run deep enough for the user to actually tell, in areas ranging from taxonomy management to consistent Boolean search.

In fact, early opportunities to get the feel of these search technologies have been around for quite a while already, namely the FAST ESP web parts for SharePoint 2007 at Codeplex. This does indicate that effort on making the two work together has been going on from the very outset, but apart from this, it is difficult to make assumptions of any kind at the moment – not before the community is handed the actual solution, with bells and whistles on it.

Speculations aside, there’s some more to efficient SharePoint search. The last day of summer saw Surfray announce Ontolica 4.0, a search solution which now includes a Search Intelligence module, thus making Ontolica a two-in-one search offering featuring both a different approach to search as such and what I would call search metadata, i.e. search effectiveness analytics and reporting. The module can track search patterns throughout a given SharePoint deployment and generate both out-of-the-box and customized reports. Additionally, there is Ontolica 4.0 Express available for Microsoft Search Server Express.

With all the search customization options, all this is a fairly satisfactory start. Even for now, while 2010 is not here yet, as well as all the goodies it may bring.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Welcome to the HTML 5 Bandwagon

Early in August, Microsoft officially set fire to the web by finally manifesting the company’s clear interest in developing the standard that would revamp the face of the web. The move is hardly surprising, though somewhat belated.

The web is no longer the way it used to be back in late nineties – that is, it is no longer static. The term “RIA” seems to have already lost its novelty glitter. The majority of users know better than to be satisfied with the more ascetic, video-less offerings and increasingly turn towards web apps. Naturally, that requires a new web, standardized from a different standpoint.

The effort on HTML 5 has been vigorously implemented in all the major browsers, but the notable (someone would even say expected) thing was that IE by and large remained out of the business for a while. HTML 5 heavily depends on its consistent feedback from throughout the software world, so support from the Microsoft camp is critical to whether we are seeing offline web experience, client-side storage and a host of other features that would upgrade the flavor of the web. On the flip side, Microsoft is a real-world company that cannot afford falling behind. Gradually, yet evenly, the software giant delivers its response to change, be it offering a free lightweight version of Office, giving more weight to social media aspects and introducing cross-browser support in the upcoming SharePoint or, just as importantly, turning to tackle HTML 5.

At last, the next-generation web standard and the maker of one of the leading browsers, which by the way has started to lose ground, have arrived at a negotiation spot. In the now ubiquitously known HTML 5 mailing list posting, Adrian Bateman of the IE team said the team are in the middle of gathering their thoughts. A number of concerns have been voiced, including labeling the partially adopted

It seems, however, that the real big yes/no question that will define pretty much of both the standard itself and its backing is audio and video playback out of the browser, which could potentially phase out respective plug-ins and is bound to trigger further debate.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

CMIS Support in SharePoint 2010

A certain share of the additional attention that CMIS has recently managed to pull probably originates out of the issue of the future standard’s support in SharePoint 2010. At the moment, I am not sure I know the definitive answer – accounts of the pre-announced features in SharePoint 2010 do in fact include CMIS support, but in a pretty educational post on, to my surprise, I read the following: “There is currently no news of support of CMIS in next version of SharePoint.” Interesting, but a little confusing. With the tiny and rather generic bits of information on what will form the face of the upcoming version of SharePoint, some of which are spun around to the point of blurring factual with anecdotal, it is really difficult to tell.

CMIS (the four letters stand for “Content Management Interoperability Services”, although the S is alternatively deciphered as “Specification” or “Standards”, all of which makes sense, so let there be some room for variation, although the correct one is still “Services”) is an Enterprise Content Management standard currently being developed (the latest version is 0.6-something, if memory serves me) by an OASIS technical committee with representatives from Microsoft, IBM, and EMC. The aim of the project is standardizing the existing ECM systems and thus allowing seamless data exchange within or across different content management systems, making use of SOAP REST and AtomPub.

CMIS was announced in September 2008, and although those developing the specification seem to be doing some advances towards the holy grail of 1.0, with examples of integrating the current working version of the specification emerging here and there, it is not widely covered on the web. For instance, a clipped idea of how CMIS could work with SharePoint was made available by a sample featuring the inclusion of an external repository into MOSS 2007.

Whether CMIS will be leveraged in SharePoint 2010 still remains an open issue since the standard’s 1.0 release time is still obscure – it is expected late this year. What the interested ones can do is try to grasp how CMIS works (this would probably help and wait until Microsoft finally unveils SharePoint 2010, i.e. up to the SharePoint conference in late October. It is neatly possible that the big announcements will arrive hand in hand.