Don Spencer (Waterloo, ON, IT Manager of Pano Cap Canada)
It’s all about SharePoint.
Access 2007 and SharePoint are now joined at the hip. While it would be wrong to suggest that the future of both products depends upon the collaborative features they share, it isn’t an exaggeration to claim that IT managers will judge the value of Access 2007 according to how well integrated it becomes with SharePoint.
The first answer is because that’s the way Microsoft wants it (see the Jupiter Research blog for further details). Seriously! Office and Windows growth have largely stagnated, at least in the North American market, so one way to drive further growth is to link Office products with server products, especially as more businesses migrate away from mainframes and UNIX systems to Linux-based and Windows Server-based systems. SQL Server and Windows Server products, for example, both demonstrate good growth profiles. But the fastest growing product of them all is SharePoint Services. And it is SharePoint which will act as the middle-ware glue Microsoft needs.
As other competitors like Google try to entice small- and medium-sized businesses into their evolving enterprise-class offerings, Microsoft must be hoping that the rich and well-known Office clients will prove just too attractive as the linkages with server products and services gains momentum. One problem with this strategy, of course, is that Office 2007 has an interface that is so different from previous Office products that some of the user inertia may actually work against Microsoft plans.
But the more important reason why IT managers will judge Access 2007 based on the SharePoint collaboration features is that the market is pulling us in that direction. Increasing dependence on mobile devices, on browser-based application interfaces, and compound, multi-valued, and sometimes unstructured data sources means that departmental database applications have to change.
Mobile device and applications are a no brainer. Pocket PCs and smart phones mean that business users want access to lists wherever and whenever they need them. SharePoint lists and versions of Office products for the mobile platform like Excel fill those needs dutifully. Third-party companies are already offering forms packages that can link with notebooks, synchronize with corporate databases, or simply email the collected data (see Harrington Group’s PocketPCForms for just one example). For notebook users, Access 2007 applications with linked tables from SharePoint are even better choices. The tables will be synchronized automatically once the user is reconnected with a SharePoint Server.
Browser-based application interfaces also mean that users want simplicity and access to central data stores whether its on the company intranet or through the Internet. Again SharePoint Services and the eventual deployment of Office Live worldwide (not yet available in Canada I’m afraid) will make an Access 2007 client front-end extremely attractive (see Clint Convinton’s blog on the Cool as Ice application for an example). Small businesses who need a contact management application, for example, can subscribe to Office Live, create a simple Access 2007 front-end, and yet still store their data centrally and securely without a huge investment in their own server infrastructure.
Finally, one of the new features of Access 2007 that IT managers will appreciate is complex data types. Database architects will recognize that this new feature is really a surface for a behind-the-scenes many-to-many relationship. Normally, such a structure would require 3 separate tables. In Access 2007, it requires a single table.
But that’s the whole point. Unstructured data, like email messages; compound or multi-value fields, like tags or keys; typical complex data types like file attachments with at least three separate pieces of information (like File Name, File Data, and File Type) – they can all be defined in a single Access table.
It’s at this point that IT managers might just break ranks with long-term Access developers. Managers will see the value of simplifying the design of tables and the option of upsizing these simplified solutions to SharePoint lists. Developers are going to complain, sometimes bitterly, about data conversion issues with upsizing, about the lack of lack of referential integrity in those SharePoint lists, and perhaps even about the lack of specific VBA constructs to mitigate some of the problems.
Both sets of IT professionals are right. Access 2007 and SharePoint collaboration features are about a new focus for departmental applications, about future directions and opportunities. That will please managers. But developers and their managers will have to accept a wait-and-see attitude about the robustness of the new platform (for a good overview of the debate among developers, see Erik Rucker’s blog entries, especially 13-Oct-2006).
In the third, and final, installment, I will highlight specific resources and tools the IT manager should keep in mind when deploying Access 2007 and managing development teams.