Enhancing productivity in a team environment
Windows SharePoint Services (WSS) and Microsoft SharePoint Portal Server (SPS) 2003 provide a unifying, integrated, and extensible technology platform that can meet the collaborative needs of small teams and large enterprises alike. Whether you're generating intellectual property or ensuring that audiences can publish and discover relevant information, the SharePoint platform provides services that can help you succeed.
WSS is a three-tier Web application that's an add-on to Windows Server 2003. You can download WSS from the Microsoft Web site (http://www.microsoft.com/windowsserver2003/techinfo/sharepoint/wss.mspx). WSS provides a site framework on which to build team sites that support the sharing of information among users. A WSS team site provides document libraries and lists for announcements, events, tasks, contacts, issues, surveys, and discussions. These libraries and lists are extensible. Although WSS can scale up and out to support the needs of hundreds of thousands of team sites, the real power of the WSS team site is that the users can design and create their own sites to meet their needs.
SPS builds on the WSS site framework by facilitating the publishing of relevant information across departments or organizations. SPS provides many features that make this facilitation possible, such as audience targeting (which makes sure the right people receive the right information), enterprise searches (data from multiple sources is indexed to provide relevant and aggregated search data), and personal Web sites for all users. Unlike WSS, SPS isn't a free add-on but rather an application that has to be purchased and licensed. For more information about SPS, go to http://www.microsoft.com/sharepoint.
By themselves, WSS and SPS provide users with many capabilities for collaboration. However, a primary goal of the SharePoint platform is to support collaboration by letting other applications easily exploit its services. In other words, the goal is to have collaborative services available from whichever application the user is currently using rather than having to always use one specific collaboration application. Built on Microsoft Internet Information Services (IIS) 6.0, Microsoft SQL Server 2000, Windows .NET Framework, and ASP.NET, the SharePoint platform achieves this goal by exposing its features through a managed object library and multiple XML Web services.
Microsoft Office 2003 is a great application to showcase how to take advantage of the SharePoint platform. There are many integration points between Office 2003 and the SharePoint platform—too many to cover here. Therefore, I concentrate on how the SharePoint platform can assist the document creation and publishing processes in Office 2003 applications. But before I discuss how the SharePoint platform can benefit Office 2003 users, I want to discuss how Office 2003 can benefit SharePoint users.
How Office 2003 Can Help SharePoint Users
Because WSS is a Web application, the primary client is a browser. Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE) 6.0, IE 5.5 Service Pack 2 (SP2), IE 5.01 SP2, and Netscape Navigator 6.2 are the officially supported browsers, but Mozilla 1.6 or later and Firefox 0.7 or later work as well. (A browser certainly isn't the only client that users can use to access the documents and lists contained inside their team sites—more about this in the next section.)
Office 2003 can help SharePoint users access their team sites through a browser. As you navigate to a document library within a team site, you have an option to upload a file. Think of this as copying a file from your hard disk to a file share. The only difference is that you're using a browser rather than Windows Explorer to invoke the copy operation. By default, the browser upload option lets you upload only one file at a time, which clearly is limiting. However, if your browser supports ActiveX controls and your system includes an ActiveX control named STSUpld.UploadCtl, a multiple-upload option is available. Office 2003 installs this ActiveX control.
There are other ways in which Office 2003 helps you access team documents and lists through a browser. For example, Office 2003 lets you use the Data Sheet View to do Microsoft Excellike editing directly in the browser. In addition, Office 2003 lets you use the New option to directly create a document in a library and lets you import entries from the Outlook Address Book so that you can add users to a team site or populate a contacts list.
How SharePoint Assists Document Creation in Office 2003
Traditionally, people think of the primary Office products (e.g., Excel, Outlook, Microsoft PowerPoint, Microsoft Word) as personal productivity tools. SharePoint raises the stakes by enhancing team productivity while maintaining a familiar way of working. For example, most people are used to creating documents in Word and storing them on the C drive or a file share and perhaps attaching them to a mail message for distribution and commentary. These actions are fairly personal and don't involve much team collaboration. But what if the document in question was stored inside a SharePoint document library instead?
The first item to note about document libraries is that they're accessible from more than just a browser. The WWW Distributed Authoring and Versioning (WebDAV) protocol is used for document library access, which means you can access document libraries from Windows Explorer (through Web Folders), directly from Office 2003 applications and, if running on the Windows XP platform, directly from any application through the DAV redirector. (The DAV redirector essentially lets you map a document library like a network drive and translates the Server Message Block—SMB—calls into WebDAV calls.)
Thus, you can easily open and save documents directly into a document library. This ability offers several benefits to team members. First, the document library becomes part of a team site and other data (e.g., tasks or contacts in a list) can augment it. Second, like lists, the metadata associated with a document library is extensible. Thus, you can add descriptive information about a document, which facilitates discovery and usage by other team members. Something as simple as a check box that specifies whether the document is ready for wider distribution can be extremely beneficial in a team environment. Office 2003 recognizes this metadata and lets users set it directly from the application when saving the document to a library. In addition, document libraries support check-in/check-out and versioning, and these options are available directly from within the Office 2003 application.
Here's another example of how the SharePoint platform raises the stakes. If the document you currently have open inside your Office 2003 application is from a document library, you can view the Shared Workspace task pane, which Figure 1 shows. This pane lets you see and manipulate other team-site collateral that's affiliated with the document, without leaving the Office application. "So what?" I hear you cry. Well, maybe something in the document raises a question in your mind that one of your team members might be able to answer. You can immediately see which team members are online and start an Instant Messaging (IM) conversation with them. Or perhaps you want to assign a task to a team member or open another document that's associated with the site. You can perform all these actions from the Shared Workspace pane. This pane is also available programmatically through the SharedWorkSpace object and associated objects in the Office Object library.
How SharePoint Assists Publishing in Office 2003
Document workspaces are a special kind of WSS team site designed primarily to support the updating and republishing of documents that exist in a standard document library. In document workspaces, multiple authors can work on local copies of documents. Each author's local copy is then merged back into a master copy before republishing. This support is built only into Office 2003 applications.
You don't need to use a document workspace to update a document, but the document workspace supports the updating process, especially if you want multiple people to provide updates and data, such as links, tasks, and events that assist the updating process. You can provision a document workspace from the browser or an Office 2003 application. A copy of the document to be worked on is placed in the workspace, and the document remembers its source location so that it's published back to that location. In addition, the location of the document workspace is recorded in the document's header so that offline and local edits can be made and subsequently merged back to the master copy in the document workspace.
There's another way you can provision document workspaces, and this approach best highlights their intended usage. If you work in a team environment, you've probably attached a document to a mail message that gives instructions such as, "Please review this document and send me your updates. I'll then collate and reproduce a master copy." With Outlook 2003, you can now choose to create a shared attachment, which makes this team task far more efficient, especially if you're attaching Office 2003 files, such as an Excel spreadsheet or Word document. (If you don't use an Office 2003 attachment, you don't get subsequent automatic updates of the master copy from local copies—a feature that I describe in the next paragraph.) Figure 2 shows the Shared attachments option. Creating a shared attachment dynamically provisions a document workspace, and the mail message's recipients are added as members of that workspace. Before the mail message is sent, a master copy of the local attachment is stored in the document library that's provisioned inside the document workspace. The only change to the local attachment is the addition of the location of the master copy in the header. This change doesn't affect routine mail delivery.
As recipients open the local attachment, the underlying Office 2003 application (e.g., Excel, Word) offers the chance to retrieve any updates from the master copy and to automatically apply to the master any changes made to the local copy. Thus, you can edit your local copy offline and know that your changes will be automatically applied in the master document the next time you're online. Conflict checking is supported, with automatic and manual resolution of conflicts possible. Thus, for example, if you're the last person to open the original mail message, you can immediately retrieve all the updates made by others in the interim, which brings you immediately up-to-date with all team-member input. Figure 3 shows conflict checking in action.
Make Teamwork Productive and Enjoyable
I've touched on only a few ways in which Office 2003 and SharePoint integrations can make teamwork a far more productive and enjoyable experience. There are many other ways to enhance teamwork, such as linking WSS lists to Microsoft Access, Excel, and Outlook; managing SharePoint alerts from Outlook; and using enterprise searches. Many of these capabilities leverage SharePoint's XML Web services, which I'll discuss in an upcoming article.