Matt-Brown  By Matthew Brown

I had the pleasure to sit down with Steve Ballmer for an interview at the Microsoft SharePoint conference in Las Vegas this week. My research team at Forrester spends a lot of time thinking, researching, and writing about the future of information work. So getting Steve’s view on SharePoint’s decade-long evolution from a basic document sharing application to a broad platform for rapid application development, intranet and internet sites, content management, search, social computing, and composite applications, was something I couldn’t pass up.

Unfortunately, pre-taped interviews are like a ball of pizza dough. They start life with different ingredients, get molded into interesting shapes through the discussion, until they’re eventually pounded and rolled out by communications professionals into something utterly flat and lifeless. This is not a ding on Microsoft, Forrester has its share of communications pros with flour on their hands too. For the video version, click here. But let’s consider several highlights that did and didn’t make the video. Consider that Steve:

  • Compares SharePoint to the PC…“In my own mind I compare [SharePoint] to the PC…the PC started off life as a spreadsheet machine, then became a programming machine, a word processing machine. [SharePoint is] a general purpose infrastructure that connects people to people and people to information,” says Steve. Is it just me, or does this analogy say a lot about the scale and scope of Microsoft’s ambition for SharePoint? Of course the millions of people licensed on SharePoint today pales in comparison to the billions of people using PCs. But the recipe for SharePoint does resemble the recipe for the modern-day PC to some extent: mix programmability, broadly available developer tools, common user experience conventions (aka, the “ribbon” interface), and useful applications for communicating, reading, writing, and storing information.

  • Doubles down on Windows Phone for mobile access to SharePoint…I asked Steve about mobility, specifically whether the SharePoint team is targeting competing smart phones, like RIM’s Blackberry, or Apple iPhone, with dedicated client applications. The answer was “no,” paired with a big Steve Ballmer-style smile.  I thought this a fair question as my colleague Ted Schadler’s Workforce Technographics report recently showed that while only 11% of information workers in companies use a smartphone for work, the number of collaborative applications people use on these devices, and the number of locations workers use these apps from are both very high and growing. Combined with decreasing prices for smartphones, it feels like we’re on the brink of a tipping point where smartphones become a ubiquitous platform for enterprise computing. For now, Steve seems willing to let others build iPhone apps for SharePoint. Is this a mistake? Time will tell, but after a week in Vegas of dropped calls and late delivery of SMS messages on my own iPhone, it’d be a big mistake to call the smartphone race prematurely.

  • Positions SharePoint as a serious rapid application development platform.  A big focus of the conference, and the interview, was on developers. Steve disagreed with my argument that SharePoint is not a “serious” development platform in the eyes of IT architects and developers. He countered, “I disagree … I think SharePoint is considered a very serious development platform for rapid application development.” What struck me was his take on the opportunity presented by “the many applications companies build with one man year or less of development.” Having worked in or consulted with IT departments for the majority of my career, I can’t tell you how many that is, but I’m confident saying it’s a whole lot. Many of these apps are built on technologies like Microsoft Access, Visual Basic, Lotus Notes, Java server pages, Active Server Pages, and more. So while high-end middleware companies duke it out for the comparatively few large, transactional, and process-heavy apps of the world, Steve appears completely content for now capturing even a portion of the smaller apps market. To get there, Microsoft must convince enterprise architects that tools like InfoPath Forms and SharePoint Designer can be used without taking down entire SharePoint server farms, something Microsoft has ostensibly failed to do thus far. Is SharePoint 2010 the answer? Won’t know til the Beta is underway in November. But given Steve’s talk of creating a SharePoint “sandbox in the cloud,” my bet is we’ll see lots of liberal arts programmers forged into “SharePoint Developers” over the next decade (whether enterprise architects like it or not).

Is the SharePoint/PC analogy a stretch? Is a dedicated SharePoint mobile client for competing devices a missed opportunity for Microsoft? Will SharePoint 2010 finally lead to the next generation of liberal arts “developers” building small, but useful apps? I’ve got my ideas, what about you?