The much-anticipated release of Microsoft Windows SharePoint Services is not far away.

This is the successor to SharePoint Team Services, and the changes go beyond small enhancements. In the new release, Microsoft has unified the way the technologies work. This article introduces Windows SharePoint Services and shows how it truly responds to the need for highly productive and collaborative desktop tools. Additionally, you'll explore how Windows SharePoint Services work with Office 2003 applications to bring information to users when they need it, and also making it easier for people to work together around common objectives.

As a consultant for several years, I spent a lot of time behind the firewall in many dozens of companies. I observed how organizations do things, from maintaining security, to database management, to document management, and even end-user training. After spending thousands of hours this way, it is not surprising that intriguing patterns began to emerge about how things are generally done and not done.

One of the most consistent and compelling observations I have made is this: documents are one of the most overlooked assets in nearly every organization. Here, the word "documents" is used as a general term for spreadsheets, presentations, letters, memos, maps, images, and so forth. Although it is daunting to think of how to empirically measure the value of these assets within an organization, basic common sense suggests that a great deal of organizational knowledge, power, insight, learning potential, and innovation is contained within them. Yet all too often, they are treated rather casually.

The truth of the matter is that most people have a tendency to store documents in too many places. And storing them in a central location does not equal collaboration.

A product such as Windows SharePoint Services is precisely what is needed by many companies and individuals to extract more value out of documents and the way people work with them. Simply put, Windows SharePoint Services let you create Web sites for information sharing and document collaboration, sites that are fully integrated with Microsoft Office 2003 Editions. In this article, you will explore the basic features of SharePoint Portal Services 2003 and discover ways that it can increase personal and team productivity.

Windows SharePoint Services' Main Features

First, let's get a general sense of what Windows SharePoint Services do. You already know that the product's focus is on information sharing and document collaboration. One of the key things Windows SharePoint Services does is to provide Web sites where users can share documents. But few documents are meaningful all on their own. They are usually part of a process, a workflow, a project, or some other purposeful context. Windows SharePoint Services sites are ASP.NET-based sites that, while providing file storage, also provide a way for team collaboration on documents, tasks, contacts, events, surveys, and other sorts of information.

In Figure 1, you can see what a team site might look like. This page is the main entry point for those who work for an entirely fictitious and thoroughly narcissistic magazine called JRDMag.

Figure 1: Here you can see what a default SharePoint site looks like. These sites are pages served up as ASP.NET in IIS.6.0

The magazine publishes monthly, and there are many people who must work together to get each issue completed on time. The Managing Editor of the magazine must be aware of how things are going at each stage of the publishing process and for each of the groups. There is a team of artists who work with images and other assets for the publication. There are editors who improve the quality of the textual content and assure its compliance with basic editorial standards. There are sales people who solicit advertisement for the magazine. Salespeople must be in close contact with editors and production staff so that the right amount of space is allocated in the magazine for the advertisements. They must also communicate with the people in finance so that the advertisers pay on time. There is also a marketing team whose primary duty is to promote the magazine and provide tools to the salespeople. Additionally, there are staff members responsible for soliciting and managing subscriptions. Nearly all of the content comes from external sources, so no writers are staffed at the magazine. There are other people in the organization, but the parties described thus far give a somewhat realistic business scenario in which to place the use of Windows SharePoint Services.

Easy Access for All Team Members

In one sense, Windows SharePoint Services is an easily accessed file server. People can store their documents in a document library by going to the site. The truth of the matter is that most people (including me) have a tendency to store documents in too many places. And storing them in a central location does not equal collaboration.

It is a common practice for companies to create file shares that are centrally managed, fault-tolerant, and regularly backed up. The idea is to have people store any important documents relating to their job on one of the shares. Usually, people are also given a folder on a share where they can store more personal documents. Few people fully embrace this practice. One of the main reasons is the loss of personal control. Another is the inability to effectively search, sort, and browse the content. Too often, people end up clicking through the tree-nodes in a file explorer, searching up and down directory structures looking for the files they need. Compare the relatively primitive behavior that a file share provides with the more sophisticated view shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2: Viewing document libraries in SharePoint sites means that more details about files in those libraries are available. The properties of documents can be changed, and they can be the basis of searches.

Notice the information beyond file names, including a field for the status of the document in the context of how the business works. This view is only one way of looking at a library full of various items. The items could include spreadsheets, letters, presentations, and other types of content. In this example, the view shows all the items in the document library. But, as you will see in a moment, Windows SharePoint Services views let you look at the same items differently, to view different properties for the items, to group them by some context, and to filter out ones that are not relevant. The properties attributed to an item in Windows SharePoint Services are their metadata, and are external to the item's internal data content.

As a collaboration platform, Windows SharePoint Services let users store documents on the file server. In addition to just storing the item and its internal content, Windows SharePoint Services also allows each item to have these metadata properties; the metadata properties are the source of much of Windows SharePoint Services' power.

Choosing Views by Metadata Properties

Normal directories are limited in what kind of metadata they can provide, not serving up much more than file name, file size, creation date, read-only attributes, and so on. In contrast, Windows SharePoint Services puts you in control of what information is stored about items in the document libraries. This allows you to do more effective searches and view content in ways that help you do your work.

Figure 2 shows a view of articles that are going to be published in the magazine, their volume and issue numbers, and their current status in the publishing cycle. What this means is that you can create views that let you target the most relevant items in the document library. For example, you can create a view for just one volume number, for one issue, or for a specific status value, such as Acquired. In Figure 3, the view shows only those items with the Acquired status. You can see that in a library with potentially thousands of items, views become increasingly important.

Figure 3: Windows SharePoint Services lets you create different views of the same list contents. In this case, a view displays only items that match a specific criteria.

One of the key benefits of storing items this way is that it separates what the documents mean in an organizational context from how they are organized in directory structures. Normally, directory hierarchies are designed around information such as a year, a model number, product lines, or other criteria. But this leads to inevitable dilemmas and redundant storage. For example, if a directory is created for a product model, and there is another directory for the year of a product's life cycle, what happens if a product is around for more than a year? Should a document for that product be stored both in the directory for the year and also in the directory for the model? The easiest solution is to choose one or the other. The problem is that some users may be inclined to look for documents by year and others look by model.

Windows SharePoint Services solves this dilemma by allowing items in the document library to be marked up in useful ways. A single item can have an attribute for a year and it can have an attribute for a model number or any other meaningful property that makes it easier to categorize and find. Although when its data is stored in a full-fledged copy of Microsoft SQL Server 2000 (as opposed to the Windows Microsoft Data Engine bundled with Windows SharePoint Services by default), Windows SharePoint Services support full text indexing and searching on content, it also supports searching on the external properties of items. Full text indexing means that the entire contents of a document or item are indexed and prepared for searches. Full text searches can also be combined with searches on metadata properties to provide the greatest power in finding relevant items. When Microsoft Office SharePoint Portal Server 2003 is added to the environment, full text-based and property-based searches of content across all SharePoint sites, as well as across a variety of content sources, become possible.


Looking back on what has been discussed so far, there is a consistent thread running through it all: users want to do things their way. Collaboration is stifled when users feel constrained. Two people on the same team may think about information differently. This can be one of the strengths of collaboration.

The need for flexibility extends to how people interact with the site generally. For example, I may prefer seeing my pending tasks on a site's home page, but another user may not. Some users may want to see announcements, and others may not. Windows SharePoint Services permits this level of personalization, allowing users to pick and choose what bits of information are important to them, as well as how they want them presented.

Taking Advantage of Web Parts

A key technology that makes this customization possible is Windows SharePoint Services' Web Parts infrastructure used by both Windows SharePoint Services and Microsoft Office SharePoint Portal Server 2003. The principal idea behind this infrastructure is to let users create personalized user interfaces by simply dragging and dropping plug-and-play components on a Web page. Depending to which site groups users are assigned, and depending on the rights assigned to those groups, users can have varying levels of freedom to modify Web Parts and Web Part pages. They can make changes that apply to all the users of a shared page, or they can make changes that apply only to their own view of a page.

When you install Windows SharePoint Services, a number of default Web Parts are installed and can be used. Figure 4 shows a list of Web Parts that can be added to a page. But the needs of your organization may require entirely new functionality.

Figure 4: Because Web Parts are designed using well documented standards, the same Web Part can be used in different organizations with vastly different needs. Those same Parts can be customized as well.

As you have guessed, the Web Parts infrastructure is a type of platform for building Web Parts. In other words, you can create your own Web Parts to comply with the infrastructure's standards. Then, your Web Parts can be used on pages within your company or shared with vendors, partners, or, if you are truly enterprising, sold as your own product that other Windows SharePoint Services that consumers can purchase and install.

Integration with Microsoft Office 2003 Editions

Another aspect of collaboration facilitated by Window SharePoint Services is the tight integration with the Microsoft Office System 2003 applications. In Figure 5, you can see that the pop-up menu for an item includes a choice for editing the document in the appropriate host application, in this case, Microsoft Word. Clicking this option launches the host application, and the file can be modified in the normal way.

Figure 5: When visiting a site to view its contents, users can take a variety of actions on the documents they find there.

But there is more that can be done. The pop-up menu for an item in a SharePoint site has other options that let you check an item out, modify its metadata, or view the version history. Windows SharePoint Services supports document versioning via version history and checking an item out.

While teams work with documents, only one person can edit a single document at a time because it is checked out. The version history lets you view document activity over time, discovering who modified it and when. The ability to check documents in and do other activities is possible not only via a Web browser but also in the Office 2003 applications. For example, with a document checked out in Microsoft Office Word 2003, you can check the document in directly from a menu in the application rather than going to a Web page in the site. The same is true for checking documents out, as seen in Figure 6.

Figure 6: Documents can be checked in and out via a Web browser or using convenient menus in the Office 2003 application.

In the same host application, other points of contact with the portal are also evident. For example, the task pane includes a Shared Workspace pane. This pane is another way of viewing the contents of a team Web site where documents, tasks, and other collaboration content resides. In Figure 7,you can see a view of the tasks for a collaboration team site.

Figure 7: Tasks can be seen via a Web browser or viewed conveniently in an application such as Word 2003, Excel 2003, or PowerPoint 2003.

Another way that the Office 2003 application interacts with the SharePoint site is through Web folders. These are really just additions to Windows network places and can be viewed in the standard Microsoft Windows Explorer. As such, the Office 2003 application can access the URL to open and save documents. Figure 8 shows how the Web folder looks when targeting a document in Word 2003.

Figure 8: Documents can be opened in the standard Office 2003 dialog boxes using a URL instead of a typical file path.

Sharing a Calendar

Microsoft Office Word 2003, Microsoft Office Excel 2003, Microsoft Office PowerPoint 2003, and other applications are great for composing documents, one of the primary benefits of collaboration. But, true collaboration is really about communicating, a great portion of which is done in Microsoft Office Outlook 2003. With the release of Outlook 2003, integration with Windows SharePoint Services are quite complete and awfully addictive. For example, take a look at Figure 9, which shows a calendar for a team Web site. The calendar contains various appointments and events, all of them relating to a team.

Figure 9: SharePoint sites can feature calendars for group activities and other events that concern the team.

It is not terribly convenient to go to a Web site to see calendar content when most scheduling is done within Outlook 2003 itself. With the release of Outlook 2003, a user need not choose between working with a calendar in Outlook 2003 or one on the Windows SharePoint Services site. There is an option in a site event calendar to link to Outlook 2003 so that the calendar appears within the application, as shown in Figure 10.

Figure 10: Event calendars can be linked with Outlook 2003 so that the same team events and appointments can be seen in the same application as your personal calendar

Creative Discussion Boards

Although there are many other ways that Office 2003 integrates with Windows SharePoint Services to make collaboration easier, and although there are many more features that have not been discussed, another tool bears mentioning: discussions.

One of the key benefits of storing items by storing the physical document in one place and its characteristics in another is that it separates what the documents mean within the organizational context from the more purely hierarchical organization in directory structures.

As already stated, collaboration is about communicating with others, making it easy to get together, to make a point, to record information, to affect the course of action. One of the ways people can converge is through discussions. Built right into the supporting services of Windows SharePoint Services is the ability to have discussions about documents, or discussions can take place right in documents. These discussions differ from normal comments inserted into a document in that discussions are more of a threaded way of conversing in the context of the document.

Figure 11 shows a document with both an embedded comment and a discussion. In this case, the discussion is not actually embedded within the document, but other users who wish to discuss the document can see the discussion thread, either in Word 2003 or Internet Explorer, and they can weigh in on any interesting topic.

Figure 11: Discussions make it easier for users to quickly comment on and exchange ideas about documents in the portal.

Technical Considerations

Finally, it is good idea to discuss briefly a few technical considerations. Windows SharePoint Services, which runs only on Windows Server 2003 in conjunction with ASP.NET and SQL Server 7, provides the basic Web site functionality, the ability to use Web Parts, a fully programmable server-side object model, document storage, page personalization, and the general underpinnings for small team, departmental, and enterprise-wide deployments.

Windows SharePoint Services is an enterprise portal application, but it relies heavily on Windows SharePoint Services for much of its core functionality. It takes things a step further by providing for enterprise indexing and searching, audience targeting, creating and managing individual sites for each user, BizTalk integration, and a number features that target a larger deployment scenario.


In the end, Microsoft's Windows SharePoint Services are about what is really going on the workplace today. The fact is that few people author documents in isolation. They work together to produce timely and accurate reports, presentations, letters, memos, diagrams, notes, announcements, and other artifacts. These are produced and maintained within the currents that flow through an organization, and Windows SharePoint Services makes it possible to channel those currents, to remove obstacles to their flow, and to build a larger reservoir of institutionally shared knowledge. Look for articles in coming months that go deeper into the inner workings of both Windows SharePoint Services and SharePoint Portal Server 2003 and how to programmatically enhance their power and functionality.