While SharePoint's "cloud" ambitions started many years ago, the perfect storm of Azure (another major component of this year's SharePoint conference), Office365 and improved development tools have created the fertile environment for adoption. When Microsoft first announced cloud services like Business Productivity Online Suite and, specifically SharePoint Online, it was a way to stretch the existing SharePoint 2007 product, without the expectation of being truly successful. It was, however, a good proving ground to enable Microsoft to learn about how SharePoint could play -- or not -- in a shared environment.
Truth be told (and despite the hype), SharePoint 2010 isn't truly multi-tenant either. Though it's far ahead of its predecessor, the current version of SharePoint in O365 still has plenty of warts. For example, Microsoft announced a "new" feature of SharePoint Online in Business Connectivity Services (BCS). Terrific! The trouble is that BCS is a feature of SharePoint on-premise and Online is just catching up.
During the keynote demo, Microsoft demonstrated BCS. They showed a SharePoint Online application connected to SQL Azure that produced some nifty charts. The demo got applause, but prompted Jeremy Thake from AvePoint to tweet: "Why use azure worker role to submit vote & not straight in #SharePoint list? 'coz we can!'" Unfortunately, the real answer is that BCS only supports connecting to a web service (specifically a Windows Communication Foundation or WCF service). As a result, this other web site (the Azure worker role) actually "shimmed" the SQL database with web services to enable the connection.
Beyond BCS, the story is quite uneven. For features like Word, InfoPath and Excel Services, Microsoft has crafted a "value-added" subscription model (pay more, get more). Other services, like managed metadata (a major feature of SharePoint 2010) are simply unavailable. And, as I’ve mentioned, in the BCS case, Microsoft had to cripple the service to make it cloud compatible. In the end, despite the new 2010 architecture, Microsoft was unable to effectively manipulate their service applications to truly understand multi-tenant environments; the services simply can't differentiate one tenant from another within the same farm (though if you have a private farm, the architecture works relatively well).
That said, no could argue anything other than SharePoint is poised to compete effectively with Google apps and other low-cost alternatives among individual professionals and small businesses. Pure on-premise implementations were out of reach for the vast majority of small businesses and, certainly, individual professionals. O365 falls into both the "it just works" and "it's good enough" categories of technology favored by SMB customers.
Other so-called "SharePoint Killers" have been beating the cost, complexity or adoption drum (or all three) to differentiate themselves from the behemoth on-premise enterprise SharePoint product. Unfortunately, many of these products merely compete with SharePoint along one or two functional dimensions (like simple file sharing or light document management). However, their arguments hold less credibility in an O365 world, where the cost per user for enterprise-class e-mail (Exchange), internet-based collaboration (SharePoint) and real-time messaging (Lync) legitimately starts at $6 per month. Moreover, all of the services packaged in O365 are quite well integrated into the most widely adopted desktop productivity tool on the planet -- Office.
So for the Davids of the SMB market, Goliath is calling and he's looking a bit more trim. For the larger enterprise market, SharePoint in the Cloud still has a ways to go....