Is Microsoft's SharePoint unstoppable, or mostly smoke and mirrors?

Microsoft rebuffs criticism that its widely quoted momentum figures mask a less-rosy reality

Guessing what eye-popping growth figures Microsoft Corp. will trumpet for SharePoint, its popular portal and collaboration app, has become an annual parlor game for fans and detractors alike.

At Microsoft's first global conference for SharePoint in May 2006, which 1,300 people attended in Seattle, Microsoft said the software had 75 million licensed users.

That number grew a year later to 85 million licensed users, generating $800 million in annual revenue.

Last year, Microsoft reported more than $1 billion in SharePoint sales and more than 100 million users.

At this week's sold-out worldwide SharePoint conference, which has drawn 8,000 to Las Vegas, Microsoft said SharePoint is defying the company's slump, growing more than 20%, to $1.3 billion, according to Jeff Teper, corporate vice president for SharePoint.

Teper hinted that SharePoint's licensed user base may be as high as 130 million today, saying its year-on-year growth was "roughly in relation to our revenue."

Windows' replacement?

That would seems to provide compelling evidence that SharePoint is preparing to enter Microsoft's pantheon of ubiquitous platforms along with Windows and Office. CEO Steve Ballmer has called SharePoint Microsoft's "next big operating system."

It's even more impressive considering the software's short history. First introduced in 2000 under the name Office Server Extensions as a tool for hosting Microsoft Office documents on the Web, the software underwent several minor name changes, reflective of Microsoft's changes in positioning against incumbent collaboration and groupware apps such as Novell's GroupWise and IBM's then-dominant Lotus Notes.

Early on, SharePoint had the reputation of being a jack-of-all-trades that, out of the box, was a master of none, said Michael Sampson, a consultant and former analyst at Ferris Research.

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