Microsoft boldly bundles again

Seemingly unbowed by its antitrust troubles, Microsoft Corp. again is adding technology to its Windows server operating system, this time focused on collaboration features for corporations.

Microsoft said at its annual Exchange Conference last week that with the expected release of Windows.Net Server early next year, it will add a set of collaboration features called SharePoint Team Services to the base operating system. The inclusion of additional features most likely will send ripples through the collaboration software market, influence how IT executives buy and deploy the software, and invite more legal scrutiny of Microsoft’s product bundling.

The SharePoint services, accessed programmatically through a set of APIs, let groups of users set up Web sites where they can share documents, calendars and to-do lists related to team projects.

The services will be available through Office XP. But Microsoft is moving them to the core of the operating system along with additional services, including white boarding, remote assistance and application sharing.

The features will provide IT executives with base collaboration features as part of the core of Windows.Net Server and let developers embed those services in applications designed for the platform.

“This changes collaboration and could impact many users and vendors in the market,” says Matt Cain, an analyst with Meta Group. “When Microsoft starts to embed functionality in the [operating system] it typically gets used by IT and becomes a commodity.”

Some IT executives say the SharePoint features could simplify the way they deploy collaboration services.

“This looks like it could be used to replace some [collaboration] features on an intranet,” says Rick Riis, MIS director for Encompass Electrical Technologies, which provides electrical wiring services. “There is a lot of stuff we do already that this could replace.”

But adding features to the operating system is what landed Microsoft in its current antitrust trouble and also brought criticism of Windows XP, the forthcoming desktop operating system that includes built-in audio, video and instant-messaging capabilities.

In addition to SharePoint, Microsoft said it is developing a Real-Time Collaboration (RTC) Server, based on the Session Initiation Protocol (SIP), which will unify the operating system-based collaboration features with voice, video and instant messaging for delivery to any number of devices over any links, including low-bandwidth. SIP is a protocol that provides IP telephony services. Microsoft did not specify a timetable for the release of RTC Server.

The two together could provide a powerful combination, and with the use of Microsoft client interfaces – Office XP, Microsoft Instant Messenger or a Web browser – it would give IT executives a range of collaboration tools.

It’s all part of Microsoft’s .Net plan to create an infrastructure to support the delivery over the Internet of software as a set of Web services, chunks of reusable code that could be cobbled together on the fly.

But it also has ramifications for IT executives and the current collaboration market, which includes numerous vendors, such as IBM Corp./Lotus Development Corp., eRoom Technologies Inc., Intraspect Software Inc., iManage Inc. and Groove Networks Inc.

There are about 10 million users of team-based collaboration software, according to market research firm International Data Corp. The number is expected to balloon to 70 million by 2005.

“The long and short of it is that collaboration services are going to be written into applications instead of being contained in a separate application,” Meta Group’s Cain says.

With SharePoint, companies can build collaborative applications without having to deploy a third-party product. For example, a shipping application could add calendar and document sharing features just by using the SharePoint features in Windows.Net. That also could result in performance gains because the application would not have to reach out to a secondary application for that service.

With collaboration services in the operating system, customers already licensing Windows.Net server may find that running any collaboration applications similar to SharePoint would amount to paying twice for the same features.

Lotus has its QuickPlace and Sametime servers that offer team collaboration and real-time collaboration. Both can run on Windows.

Vendors such as Groove offer collaboration based on a peer-to-peer model. While SharePoint isn’t pure peer-to-peer, Microsoft’s instant messaging client is a peer-to-peer application that will utilize SharePoint services.

“What they have proposed with SharePoint is what we’ve been shipping for two years with Sametime but without the security and scalability,” says Mike Loria, director of advanced collaboration for Lotus.

“It doesn’t make it better to put it in the [operating system],” he adds.

While SharePoint might not offer all the rich features of similar products, it may provide a good enough option.