In one of my university political science classes, we had to read and review a now famous essay by Francis Fukuyama titled "The End of History?" In the essay, Fukuyama argued that the apparent victory of modern liberal democracy over totalitarianism in the aftermath of the Cold War effectively marked the end of the ideological evolution of forms of government.
As I speak with more and more clients, I'm struck by the parallel between the essay's main argument and SharePoint (don't laugh...there's more). In much the same way Fukuyama suggests a resolved debate on forms of effective government, SharePoint seems to have halted virtually every conversation about alternate portal technologies. When speaking with my colleagues, Steve Krol, Exec VP of Services at Lyons Consulting Group, and Tony Byrne, CMS Watch founder, it seems they're seeing much the same thing. In fact, Steve went as far as to compare SharePoint to Kleenex, Band Aid, and Xerox -- no one installs "portals" anymore, they install "SharePoint." This begs the question: does SharePoint represent the end-all of portal products?
Whether you agree or disagree, it is certainly true that more and more customers are looking at SharePoint before anything else. With 100 million seats licensed and $1 bn in sales, it's hard to argue that SharePoint is anything but successful or mainstream. Consider that companies like Accenture, Ford, Del Monte, Mary Kay, and Hawaiian Air (to name just a few) all use SharePoint (some internally and some externally). Still many others are migrating there.
Of course, SharePoint owes some of its success to Microsoft's Enterprise Agreement approach. Most customers with Enterprise Agreements that include the "core CAL" get end-user licenses for SharePoint included (the actual server license is actually trivial in the scheme of things). In addition, the Windows SharePoint Services component is a free download and, although it depends on SQL Server, a basic implementation can use another free tool -- SQL Express. However, this approach is not much different than open source platforms, or products from other vendors like Oracle or IBM that might give away some portions of their portal product in exchange for customers buying the broader platform.
As our SharePoint Report 2008 points out, the product is quite broad. It can, among other functions, support: a composite application framework, document collaboration, web content management, and a broad enterprise portal. Still, you'll really want to do your homework before assuming that SharePoint can solve your portal problems. Just because you get something "for free" doesn't mean it really is free.
And like any product, it is certainly not the end-all. SharePoint does not shine in records management, it provides only basic document management, it lacks digital asset management, while search (at the enterprise level) usually requires add-on products to deliver full value. In addition, SharePoint partially suffers and partially benefits from a very broad partner community -- some customers like the fact that SharePoint is well supported by 3rd parties, but many also feel that Microsoft should have included more of that functionality "in the box."
Is SharePoint the "End of Portal History?" Not likely. The end of the Cold War did not mark the end of political history. It just suspended some discussions and changed some others. SharePoint has clearly caused a disruption in portal conversations in many organizations. The real question is whether SharePoint deserves this kind of attention. I think it does. Just exercise suitable caution: all portals, regardless of vendor, raise tricky issues of data integration, identity management, and application usability. (Some conversations, it seems, never go away.) In the end, you must truly understand SharePoint and your needs before dismissing other solutions in the portal space.