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Microsoft SharePoint service providers are scarce, despite potential size of market

Colin Steele, Executive Editor

By the end of this year, 75% of all U.S. businesses will have at least tried out Microsoft SharePoint 2007, according to Gartner Research. But Microsoft channel execs said they're having a hard time without Microsoft SharePoint service

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providers to meet the customization demands for clients in finance, healthcare and other big-ticket sectors. And that could send those customers -- and the channel opportunities they present -- looking for competitors' products, said Mark Gilbert, a vice president for Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner.

"If they [Microsoft] truly want to dominate this market, they're really going to need to develop vertical expertise," Gilbert said.

SharePoint 2007 debuted in January. The basic version, Windows SharePoint Services, features document management, project team sites and platform management to develop Web applications.

The advanced add-on, Microsoft Office SharePoint Server (MOSS), offers enterprise portals, Web content management, business line integration and search capabilities for e-discovery. As a whole, the suite does for Microsoft's workforce efficiency products what Office 95 did for its desktop applications, according to Seth Patten, director of the Microsoft's SharePoint partner team.

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SharePoint can provide 80% of some businesses' needs straight out of the box with no customization, according to Lance Russell, cofounder and marketing director for PointBridge, a Chicago-based systems integrator. Businesses with more than 500 employees -- the vast majority of PointBridge's clients – still require a great deal of customization, Russell said.

Patten also said that many customers who buy Windows SharePoint Services and use it out of the box eventually come back to buy Office SharePoint Server and other products that require additional services.

"You don't just sell SharePoint once," Patten said.

Gilbert calls that strategy the "drug-dealer model." He agrees that "there's plenty of business around SharePoint," but adds that "Microsoft isn't yet stepping up to the plate" to train its partners in the details of customizing SharePoint for specific verticals.

A potential customer in the financial sector, for example, won't take a risk on an untrained integrator who wants to customize SharePoint -- especially when that customer can buy IBM's FileNet or another product that can more easily meet their needs, Gilbert said.

Microsoft has helped its partners by making SharePoint "a heck of a lot easier" to customize than it used to be, Russell said. And although the company does offer training to its channel partners, Patten acknowledged that the channel needs more help with SharePoint.

"The biggest issue we have is not enough skilled partners," he said. "I wouldn't say yet that it's a critical business issue, but certainly we've been hearing that partners are so busy that they don't have the resources to meet the needs of all their customers."

Mike Ragusa, vice president of partner development for Quest Software, a third-party SharePoint vendor in Aliso Viejo, Calif., agreed that Microsoft partners face integration challenges. "It's welcome pressure," he said. "They see the market. They see the need."

Microsoft has helped its partners by making the latest version of SharePoint "a heck of a lot easier" to customize than it used to be, Russell said.

As a result, PointBridge gets smaller deals than it did with previous versions. But SharePoint's growth in popularity this year means there are more jobs to do, which more than make up for the smaller deal sizes, Russell said.

PointBridge's clients include a manufacturer that uses SharePoint so employees nationwide can collaborate through workflows and document libraries and an insurance broker taking advantage of SharePoint's document libraries to store policies and quotes for compliance reasons.

"Our business is services," Russell said. "There's massive opportunities for service providers."

PointBridge is a partner with Quest Software, which last week announced its new Development Studio for SharePoint. The software aims to make application development on SharePoint easier by using a drag-and-drop interface. Like its training for the channel, Microsoft also has programs for third-party vendors like Quest to make integration easier for all parties involved.

"We're a software company," Ragusa said. "We don't want to be a services company."

Let us know what you think about this story; email: Colin Steele, Features Writer.


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