(Now would be a great time to play the tune from the Instant Mash TV advert, for those who remember it – the one with the Martian robots… Amazingly, Wikipedia has an entry for the Smash Martians, I wonder if they are also in Britannica…)

Bill Gates was the opening keynote at the SharePoint conference last week. After the usual blurb about the new world of work, he made an interesting comment about the focus on integrated services within Office SharePoint Server 2007 being similar to the focus on an integrated desktop suite in the Office 95/97 releases. Office 97 was the release that saw Microsoft Office become dominant across most areas of desktop tools (the most notable exception being the Adobe range). It remains to be seen if MOSS (Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007) achieves the same pervasive feet, with its focus on going beyond portal and collaboration to include content management, business intelligence, process management and social networking. From the way the green weed of the same name keeps trying to take over my fields this spring, the acronym seems an appropriate one for SharePoint.

Bill listed his top 5 favourite features in SharePoint (from 5 to 1): Community (wiki, blog, RSS); Excel Services; Client integration; Search (including the new business data catalog); and SharePoint for composite applications. No real surprises there but interesting to see #1 is the ability to use SharePoint for building composite applications. I’ve sat through a fair few sessions on Office 2007 (server and desktop stuff) and it’s the first time I’ve heard the phrase ‘composite applications’ applied to SharePoint. What is a composite application? An application that, using minimal code, creates a single interface into two or more existing applications to access and/or edit data in a different way. Sound familiar? The common name on the web for such a creation is ‘mash-up’.

Mash-ups have been cropping up all over the place on the web, some of the most popular use mapping tools to geographically display information held in public databases. It’s not the first time I’ve heard Microsoft use the phrase ‘composition’. If you listen to Mike Platt’s talks on Channel 9, you’ll hear him define two forms of composition: application, the typical mash-up; and data composition – where two sources of data are merged together to create a new form of data. Data compositions are particularly interesting and examples have begun to appear on the web – Titanic: The Sequel being one (mashes up multiple movie trailers to create a trailer for a new film). Steve Soderbergh made some interesting comments about the potential and challenges with mash-ups in Wired last December. When asked for an idea for a video mash-up, he responded:

“I was channel surfing the other night and Gus Van Sant’s Pscyho was on. It would be fascinating to do a mash-up of Gus’ version with Hitchcock’s version, because the whole thing with Gus’ version was that he duplicated the original shot by shot…

…So right now, I could do that at home and give it to a friend, just as something for them to watch on a Friday night. But we don’t live in a world where that can be made commercially available. So it goes underground…”

An early form of composition appeared in 2000 in a portal product (TopTier, later acquired by SAP) where portlets could be joined together, enabling you to filter data in one portlet based on your selection in a different portlet. For example, one portlet may contain a list of customers retrieved from the CRM application. A second portlet may contain a list of orders from the ERP application. Clicking on a customer name in the first portlet filters the data in the second portlet, enabling you to see only orders associated for the selected customer without having to write code to join the two back-end applications together. SharePoint followed suit in 2003, making it possible to connect web parts together to filter data across applications without the applications having to know anything about each other. Application and data composition take the concept to a whole new level.

Why have two names for the same thing – mash-up and composition? I could be completely wrong, but maybe composition has a more grounded feel to it than the anarchic sounding mash-up, making it more palatable to the enterprise? (Think of the equivalent in music – a composition is a complete piece of music whilst a jamming session is, well, sometimes music to your ears and sometimes just an ugly loud noise.) The litmus test for emerging trends and technologies is always the journey across the bridge from consumer adoption to business adoption and ‘composition’ may just have a better chance than ‘mash-up’.

One thing is certain, it is very interesting that Bill Gates calls out composition as his number one favourite feature in Office SharePoint Server 2007 (ahead of the popular choice – blogs, wikis and RSS – that only make it to #5). The obvious composition candidates that fall under the Office 2007 brand will likely be forms- and calculation-driven. (That’s InfoPath Forms Server and Excel Services from a product perspective). But I suspect the more interesting composite applications will go beyond Office 2007 and delve into the land of Live and beyond. Indeed, during the SharePoint conference, a composite application was built to geographically view customers by mashing contacts on the internal CRM system with maps hosted externally on Windows Live Local.

[Update] There’s now a video up on Channel 9 showing SharePoint mash-ups: http://channel9.msdn.com/Showpost.aspx?postid=196522

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