Two years ago, Microsoft made a big splash with their announcement that SharePoint, among other tools, was heading for "the cloud." In 2008, SharePoint Online represented Microsoft’s latest attempt to introduce more Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) offerings to the broader marketplace (Microsoft had previously offered hosting services for Exchange and SharePoint on a customer-by-customer basis).
Two years later, Microsoft’s Business Productivity Suite Online (a combination of Exchange, Communications Server, SharePoint, and LiveMeeting) continues that trend. Unfortunately, SharePoint hasn’t changed much in those two years and the 2010 version of SharePoint Online will likely be an evolution, not revolution, in Microsoft’s SaaS offerings. As a result, it was both surprising and predictable that a vendor like Bamboo Solutions announced its own entrance into the SaaS SharePoint world.
Bamboo, a long-time provider of add-on Web Parts that we evaluate in our SharePoint ecosystem research, is now getting into the hosted SharePoint business. Bamboo’s initial push is around their Requirements Management suite. Bamboo says they plan to roll out other "online applications." In fact, the next is slated to be a version of their project management suite, PM Central (which is currently for sale for on-premise installations).
Bamboo’s announcement raises two questions: 1) why would a software company tied closely to a Microsoft product get into the SaaS business, and 2) why not partner with Microsoft around SharePoint Online or BPOS? The answers: this is what Microsoft partners do and Microsoft encourages it.
There’s a long-held Microsoft strategy that says Microsoft builds the platforms, while partners create solutions. Redmond's broad partner ecosystem means that customers don’t have to wait for Microsoft to solve a problem, since there are thousands of independent software providers and system integrators that will gladly build a solution on top of a Microsoft product. And partners are more than happy to produce add-ons to products marketed by the Redmond software giant, since it’s a relatively low-risk investment -- at least in the near-term. Bamboo, in particular, has been a stalwart in the SharePoint space since 2003 ; they entered as a low-cost provider of Web Parts and the company has grown extensively over years into more packaged applications and suites (which are essentially a collection of various Web Parts in any case).
The answer to the second question sheds light on Microsoft’s constant struggle: resolving their long development cycles with the ever changing world of Software-as-a-Service. In the SaaS business, 24- to 36-month software releases are too long. It’s more the norm to update your solution once a quarter, with each update infinitely smaller than the "big bang" releases we typically see from traditional software vendors. When I asked Steve Ballmer, during the last SharePoint conference, about what Microsoft is going to do to change their development practices, his less-than-stellar answer was (paraphrasing here), "...it takes as long as it takes to develop software." Enter Bamboo with their own data center, their own provisioning system, and their own experience about how to create multi-tenant SharePoint-based applications.
As a customer, you must evaluate any product to ensure it meets your needs. You also have to exercise caution signing on with any software vendor -- such as Bamboo -- who suddenly decides they're in the services business.
In the end, though, evaluating SharePoint is much more than assessing just what comes out of Redmond. Depending on your level of investment in the platform, you'll want to understand what's coming out of the myriad vendors that support Microsoft’s products. SharePoint is rarely a solution in and of itself; it’s the SharePoint ecosystem that provides the end product.