You may have heard that there’s a ton of new software from Microsoft on the near horizon. Windows 8, Office 2013, SharePoint 2013, and pretty much anything on which you can slap 2013 will come out in the very near future. (Update: Not so much near future anymore)
You may also have heard that I’m not particularly fond of how Microsoft talks to the market about these things. I’m fairly negative, not because I’m offended by not being part of ‘the inner circle’ but rather because Microsoft’s silence is hurting the community.
How? Well, I’ll tell you how.
The Current State of Affairs
Today’s policy means that only a select few customers and partners are let in on what Microsoft is planning. In addition, MVPs get access, probably as some form of reward for being good puppies.
Microsoft’s reasoning may be that they don’t want to show off incomplete products because the product may change before release and thus give people the wrong impression or that the product may contain errors that may negatively affect the reputation of said product.
On the flip side, you may say that Microsoft is opening up to some people rather than being completely silent, and that their purpose is actually to elicit feedback from a select group of users that they think represent the whole market.
I’m not sure if these are the real reasons, but I don’t buy any of them if they are the reasons.
In any case, the current situation is that those who gain access to early information need to sign strict non-disclosure agreements under punishment of death (or so it is meant to seem). Break the contract and you’re liable for all sorts of bad stuff, and Microsoft will never come out to play with you again, even if you say you’re sorry.
So why is this so bad for the SharePoint community?
I Don’t Know What to Say!
During the course of a product cycle of three years, there’s at least one year of complete uncertainty, right after the first official news comes out about a new version. The uncertainty stems from several factors, depending on where you are in the food chain.
People in the community base their professional existence on knowing SharePoint, and almost like clockwork, Microsoft hints ever so slightly that the current version isn’t as good as what comes next.
Consider the following scenario: A client comes to you and asks for advice on what to do with SharePoint. Should they build their new ACME system on SharePoint now? As an advisor, you know that there is a major new version of SharePoint coming within a few months, but you have no idea what that version includes. Perhaps it contains 90% of ACME built-in. If you tell your client to start work now, they may be wasting a lot of resources building something they get for free in a few months.
But you don’t know, so what do you say? Do you take the clients money now and risk their investment in a few months or do you recommend they wait at the risk of not landing their business?
“Ah, but hang on”, you say, “nobody wants to upgrade right away in any case, so why rush? After all, a year after the next version comes out, it will be stable and tested.”
Well, that’s great, but a year after SharePoint 2013 comes out, it’s already 2014 (or close to) and Microsoft is already planning the next version! Another one year, and the news about SharePoint 2016 starts leaking and your clients are again left with the difficult choice.
This is a constant problem, however, and not just with SharePoint. After all, Office has the same situation, as does Exchange, Windows, or any other software.
However, the situation is a bit different with SharePoint. Organizations put a lot of valuable resources into SharePoint, in building solutions, training employees, and storing business critical data. Also, because SharePoint’s changes and improvements are often so drastic (just look at the user interface changes from 2007 to 2010, or the ‘new’ way of doing social in organizations) that swapping one version for another isn’t as easy as upgrading from one version of Office to another, or replacing an older version of Exchange with a new one.
There’s also the problem with those learning SharePoint development now. Should they learn .NET 2.0 because that will be used in SharePoint 2013 too? Well, Microsoft isn’t saying what version of .NET will be used so it’s anyone’s guess (or you can listen to me and go for .NET 4.0, but sshhh, don’t tell the Redmond folks I told you so).
Business is Business
Sure, I’ve addressed one problematic scenario, but that can’t be the whole problem, right? What about vendors? Well, for vendors, the situation is even more problematic.
Imagine this situation: your company makes an ACME feature for SharePoint, on which you base most of your income. Many third-party vendors are in this situation, betting that Microsoft will stay away from the product market and stick to building platforms.
Now consider this: Microsoft promises to come out with a new version of ‘something’, but not revealing what that ‘something’ is, you don’t know whether you’ll be in business in a year.
I just spoke to one SharePoint eLearning software provider, a partner of Microsoft no less, who very recently (and I mean _very_ recently) was assured by Microsoft’s head of education that Microsoft would never engage in building an education product on SharePoint, or so the provider thought.
Well, now we know different. Microsoft is building an education product on top of SharePoint Server, and it’s called “Office for Education”. They even published the specifications before the vendor was promised Microsoft would never do such a thing!
So now this vendor is in deep waters. They just got one of their closest partners as their main competitor, a huge mammoth of a company that can throw billions of dollars into marketing to grab that vendors market.
At least now, thanks to someone (who has two thumbs and doesn’t give a rats ass about Microsoft’s secrecy policy), they have a year to prepare, rather than a few months or even shorter had they waited until the privacy crap stopped.
Even this, however, isn’t news to anyone in software. Competitors come and go all the time, right?
Well, it is a major thing when Microsoft suddenly becomes a competitor, especially when they swear not to do so or try to hide the fact. Besides, Microsoft does invite some partners to know what’s going on, giving these partners advance notice compared to those outside the ‘inner circle’. At the very best, it is extremely unfair to those who are not invited but still have helped Microsoft build SharePoint to what it is today.
Competition isn’t the only problem either. Vendors are cautious about launching new products to SharePoint 2010 because they don’t know whether those products will work the same way in SharePoint 2013. Even a simple thing as the .NET 2.0/4.0 problem directly affects development decisions, and right now, vendors can’t make that decision because Microsoft refuses to let anyone know what framework they’re using in a few months.
Well, the Problem Is…
Microsoft says that they let some people have access in order to find bugs so Microsoft can fix them before release. That’s fine, but why does it make sense to only have a few people find bugs? Microsoft’s v1.0 software, whether that is the first release of a new version or an entirely new feature, is rarely bug free.
In fact, many will say that, as I mentioned earlier, upgrading to a new SharePoint version right after release is a huge risk because there may be bugs and problems that haven’t been fixed yet. These bugs are discovered only after Microsoft exposes the software to a large user base. Only after a huge number of users have worked with the new version for a few months can you get fixes and start relying on the platform as stable and more or less error free.
See where I’m getting with this? If those users had access months before ‘official’ release, those bugs would have been found earlier and the product would be much more stable when released to the public. The people who would work with the product at such a stage of completion would be the most tech-savvy of the user base, knowing full well the risks of running beta (or even alpha) software.
Microsoft actually does this to some extent already, by having a public beta be available this summer. That’s a good thing, and kudos to them for at least doing that, but at the moment they are losing out on valuable input from technology interested people who would jump at the chance to dig into the product this early and provide help in finding bugs and problems.
In fact, when the public beta hits the shelves, only minor changes will happen to the finished before the final product becomes available. What about all the wonderful feedback and suggestions that could have come from early adopters when it was still time to make important changes?
Instead, Microsoft releases a product they know will have bugs, leading people to correctly chant that you should delay adoption for a year so Microsoft can sort out all the bugs they didn’t allow anyone to discover earlier. The SharePoint name suffers, costs to early adopters go up, and everyone but the demo-trained sales people are miserable for several months after release.
In the End
I’m not going to drag this on forever, so let me just conclude with the following. Microsoft hurts the community by making its participants uncertain about the future and alienates its partners by consistently refusing to disclose new features that directly affect them. They also hurt the community by delivering a product that everyone knows will have bugs on release, bugs that could have been discovered with a broader access to information and bits at an earlier stage.
If you disagree, I’m all ears, because I’m still looking for well-founded (and that doesn’t mean marketing-based) arguments for why Microsoft continues to deny the community vital information that directly affects their future, can help vendors prepare, and could have made SharePoint a much better product.
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