As Office 365 nears its release date, we're hearing more about Microsoft's SharePoint Server 2010 software product. A hosted version of this product is part of the Office 365 offering.
Microsoft and Google have very different approaches to web-based applications and Online SharePoint provides another great example. Customers would use SharePoint Online to store documents. This is collaboration in the Microsoft world because another employee can go and "check out" that document to make their changes, then save the document back to SharePoint for the next person. The idea was to replace the process of emailing files all over the place and saving copies on dozens or hundreds of individual desktops, but in practice it rarely works that way. This is because SharePoint actually adds complexity to the collaboration process - when you're really collaborating with someone are your interested in adding SharePoint to the mix or do you skip it because you have real work to do? Employees continue to save files to their desktop and email them around the organization because it is easier and faster than going out to SharePoint, finding the document - hopefully the right-enough version, downloading the document, editing the document, emailing or uploading the document, saving the document in the correct-enough folder and then emailing relevant coworkers to let them know what you did. In the Microsoft world, these documents are "things" - if I have the Excel file, you do not and vice versa, it's like playing catch with a ball. In this world collaboration is very linear - employees almost always default to email because it is the easiest way to "play catch". When they're done playing catch, they might put the ball away in SharePoint but they probably keep it with them because they know they're going to want to play again soon.
Today we have the Internet. The Internet is made up of "things" too but they're hidden away from users and in the abstraction we've come to know the Internet as consisting of "places". We "get or send" Excel files while we "go to" web sites like Facebook. Places are great because many of us can visit them at the same time and we can make our places as open or as restricted as we like. You wouldn't share your online banking account with others but you love sharing all your pictures with your friends on Facebook - and all you need to visit either place is your browser. This change, from "things" to "places", is subtle but it is also the most powerful change in thinking, employees can make when they move to web apps. Google Docs was purpose built for the web - it is no surprise or accident that Google Docs runs on the same custom software, hardware, data center and network infrastructure that powers the Google.com search engine. While Google Apps does include Google Sites, for developing Intranets and other SharePoint-type functionality, it is not needed for centralized document storage, sharing and collaboration. Like other Internet sites, Google Docs is a "place".
When you think of collaborative editing think of a web site like Wikipedia, the most collaborative iniative in human history. Wikipedia was also purpose built for the Internet. True collaboration occurs between people and other people, not people and their desktop. In a world powered by the Internet a sharepoint is obsolete.