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May 24, 2005

"Essential SharePoint": Microsoft Office Document Collaboration in Action

Sebastopol, CA--With considerable help from Microsoft's broad and free distribution, Windows SharePoint Services are now gaining wider acceptance among large organizations as a way to control the flood of documents that people in corporate networks constantly generate, share, review, and revise. Although that's a step in the right direction, Jeff Webb, author of several books about Microsoft applications including Essential SharePoint (O'Reilly US $29.95), thinks the web service has enough potential to take it well beyond the enterprise.

"Even if you work alone from your home office as I do, SharePoint is too useful to pass up," he asserts. "SharePoint is for the Web what Excel was for spreadsheets. I believe it will become part of the way people work in the next two or three years. SharePoint is just one of those 'enabling technologies' that eventually becomes ubiquitous, like Word."

Available in a free download for those who own Windows Server 2003, SharePoint enables specific teams, groups, or departments within a company to create their own data-driven web sites, where they can collaborate on Office documents and keep track of all the versions and comments. Once their team web site is in place, members can upload drafts directly from Word, Excel, or PowerPoint. In Essential SharePoint, Webb explains how he used SharePoint to create the book. "O'Reilly could share access to the files I was working on, even though I live in Florida and they are in Massachusetts and California."

Webb points out that many companies prefer to handle document sharing by email, but he argues that emailing Word documents with change tracking enabled is not a viable way to collaborate on a complicated project. "What if your proposal isn't a Word document, but a set of drawings, or a spreadsheet of test results? How do you collect comments?" he asks rhetorically. "Or say a project has multiple authors and multiple files. It's pretty easy to throw a wrench into that machine."

Of course, even though SharePoint offers many advantages, the idea of adding another system may give business managers pause. "Many folks have wasted a lot of money using web tools that are too complicated or unreliable in the real world, so when I set up SharePoint for a new customer they are understandably cautious," Webb admits. "That changes to optimism, then excitement as they see how SharePoint's lists and document libraries help them work."

Because SharePoint can involve a wide range of people within an organization, Webb wrote Essential SharePoint with several audiences in mind, and recommends they read specific chapters according to their role in the company. After the book's broad introduction, early chapters address system administrators who install SharePoint and configure the web sites, and web designers charged with giving those sites a unique look and feel. Chapters in the back of the book are for programmers who employ SharePoint's sophisticated options, such as creating and programming "web parts."

The middle chapters are for the content contributors themselves, who are usually non-technical people proficient enough with Microsoft Office to upload documents and announcements to a SharePoint site so that other members of the project team can review them. Essential SharePoint teaches them how to share contacts and arrange in-person meetings with Outlook, share workspaces and lists with Excel, and use document libraries with Word. Why did Webb combine technical information and end-user guidelines in the same book?

"I wanted to provide a book that gives readers room to grow," Webb explains, "one that does more than reorganize information that is already available in Help files or on the Internet. Essential SharePoint is for people who need a full understanding of how to share their work through SharePoint." Webb has also written the SharePoint Office Pocket Guide (O'Reilly US $9.95), which provides a quick overview for project teams that need to get set up and running quickly. The pocket guide is scheduled for release in June.

Despite his enthusiasm for SharePoint, Webb advises companies and individuals sign up for a free 30-day trial through one of the SharePoint hosting providers before they install it on the server, just to see if this is really something they can work with. Those who don't own Windows Server 2003 can get sign up for the free trial and then pay a monthly fee to use SharePoint if they want to continue using it.

"If you don't have SharePoint Services, you need it," Webb insists. "It's difficult to keep track of all the documents even in a small office. The best part is that you can get at your work from anywhere in the world."

Additional Resources:

Essential SharePoint
Jeff Webb
ISBN: 0-596-00880-5, 310 pages, $29.95 US, $41.95 CA
order@oreilly.com
1-800-998-9938; 1-707-827-7000

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