I enjoyed a well-considered article from Global 360’s Derek
Weeks today on CMS Wire. Derek asks, “Is it Time for a SharePoint App Store?”
It’s a great question, and one that many of us have been asking
for years, with only one obvious answer: “Yes!” But perhaps
the more important question is, “Who can deliver it?”
Derek says, “As millions gained access to SharePoint from IT
organizations that deployed it without an explicit strategy,
its out-of-the-box experience often left them
disappointed.” In my opinion that statement is
obvious and not even remotely controversial. It reminds me of
some old creative concepts I had developed for Bamboo that never
quite made it to market:
But I would quickly point out, as does Derek, that SharePoint’s
failure to impress “out-of-the-box” is not a reason to reject the
platform, nor is it some kind of failure by Microsoft.
Rather, this is the new paradigm for platforms of all kinds.
OK, that sounds a bit esoteric. What do I mean?
Here’s one of the more approachable ways I’ve tried to explain
this: What’s the best feature of the iPhone? Is it an
easy-to-use touch screen interface? Email aggregation?
A high quality mega-pixel camera? No, no, and no. The
best feature of the iPhone is it’s
extensibility. Via the App Store, I can add
new features to my phone on demand, anytime. The product gets
better for me every day, because there is an ocean of new
functionality out there for me to choose from. SharePoint
should obviously work the same way, and in many respects it already
Microsoft, and frankly all software companies know that no
single entity can out-innovate the global development
community. It’s not a fair fight. Even with the
thousands of top-notch developers Microsoft employs, they will
never be able to stay out in front of “rest of world.” The
next hero feature, the next killer app is going to come from some
guy in his basement. Platform makers know this, have embraced
it, and rely on the global development community to provide key
feature extensions. Personally, I think Microsoft is better
than most companies at enabling and supporting that development
community. As a Microsoft partner, Bamboo has always enjoyed
robust support from Redmond, with generous access to product teams
and new technologies.
But if that’s all true, why isn’t there an established,
integrated marketplace for SharePoint feature extensions built
directly into the UI? Why can’t users browse a catalog of
apps and features and install them on demand? If we all agree
there needs to be a SharePoint App Store, who is going to build
Why Microsoft is Struggling
I can tell you candidly that Microsoft intended to include
an integrated marketplace in the SharePoint 2010 release.
Bamboo was selected as one of a handful of vendors to pilot the
program. I’m fairly certain that a couple of folks lost their
jobs because that marketplace wasn’t ready for the 2010
launch. We could tell early on that there was enormous
complexity that even Microsoft would struggle to resolve.
What were the problems?
I got a fresh reminder of the biggest problem
while listening in on a Bamboo sales call recently.
The conversation was between a Bamboo sales rep, and the lead
SharePoint solution architect at a Fortune 500 company. The
Bamboo rep was asking about the internal demand for third-party
solutions. The architect responded quickly, authoritatively,
and with perhaps a little venom. She said, “We will NEVER
allow our end users to decide what code lives on our
servers.” It makes complete sense. The last thing that
IT wants is a bunch of foreign code on their servers from
third-party publishers. When something goes wrong, that’s
just another unpredictable variable to diagnose and resolve.
If you start to add in multiple third-party solutions, from a
variety of vendors, it seems very reasonable to be concerned about
a catastrophic mess.
your IT department does. If they enabled your end users to
install a Web Part or a solution and something goes wrong, they
know they will be on the hook to support and resolve the issue as
well. So Microsoft faces the challenge of testing and
certifying third-party apps. That’s a big job, and I’m not
sure it’s one they want.
Next is licensing and “metering.” Will there be a
standardized solution to licensing? Will companies pay by the
app, by usage, or per user? This stuff gets complicated
quickly, and both publishers and buyers will want a lot of
Beyond the technical issues, there are complexities to be
resolved around who collects the money spent on third-party apps,
how big a percentage goes to the marketplace vs. the vendor,
etc. This is just work, and should be solvable, but it takes
What Microsoft was able to launch for SharePoint 2010 was a
thoroughly unsatisfying attempt to bypass the technical
complexity. We got PTC, “Partially Trusted Code” and “Sandbox
Solutions.” The big problem with these offerings was that
they imposed such severe limitations on the functionality that
nothing truly useful could be installed.
It seems clear to me that establishing an integrated marketplace
for SharePoint is still a very high priority for Microsoft.
My hunch is that there is an executive or two in Redmond that
simply will not take no for an answer. There were a lot of
hints about what is coming at Microsoft’s Worldwide Partner
Conference in Los Angeles in June. I was very surprised to
see Microsoft Pinpoint, Microsoft’s “search engine” for Microsoft
partners, positioned as the front-end to App Stores for Dynamics
and Office 365.
If you dig down into Pinpoint, you can
see that the groundwork has already been laid. Microsoft
partners such as Bamboo can now build out listings for
products (and services) that support and extend either Office 365
or Dynamics. These things aren’t called Web Parts, and they
aren’t called solutions or applications… they’re called
“Apps.” Here’s a screen shot taken directly from the
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