I like browsing gadget shops. I enjoy looking round at shelves filled with shiny things, usually with flashing lights or fun noises. Everything is fun and techy and sparkly.

The thing is, I can’t think of anything I’ve ever bought from those shops. That’s because fun and shiny tends to add a lot more to the cost than it does to the value of the item. If I need a new alarm clock, I’m going to buy the cheap but serviceable one to do the job it’s needed to do. I’m not going to add a zero to the end of the price for the sake of something that looks cool.

The same principle applies in business. The number of companies that will spend extra for the shiny new software is tiny in comparison to the number of companies who’ll buy something much cheaper that will do the job that’s needed. With the current state of the economy, shiny is not worth a whole lot but cheap and serviceable is invaluable.

Now “cheap” is probably not the first word that springs to mind when people think about SharePoint. The reason is, SharePoint is huge. Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007 (hereafter known as MOSS, to save myself considerable typing time) is product with a wide range of capabilities. There’s a joke I’ve heard since coming to Microsoft: “SharePoint is the answer. Now what’s the question?” There’s some truth behind that joke, since SharePoint is a potential answer to questions on portals, intranet, business intelligence, web, enterprise search, social networking, forms, business processes, content management, collaboration, and so on. In fact, one of the biggest problems I have with SharePoint is figuring out where to start when I need to explain what it can do.

Given the length of that list, it’s hardly surprising that paying for MOSS would be a fair chunk of budget for some companies. So the question to ask is, how much would it cost not to go for SharePoint?

There are competitors to SharePoint, but I’m only aware of one company that can offer all the functionality of MOSS in one platform. That functionality comes is the form of several products, all of which must be purchased separately at a much greater total cost than purchasing MOSS. There is also the issue of compatibility. Some of the programs that make up the competitive platform were acquired by that company rather than designed by them, meaning that the integration isn’t all it could be. The same problem comes if you want to buy individual pieces from different companies that offer a good solution for, say, collaboration or forms, you could be in for a battle to get those individual programs to integrate with each other and may end up paying more in total if you later choose to buy a program for, say, enterprise search or workflows. Integration is one of SharePoint’s key strengths. It’s also the second of my big problems. There are two of us on the Partner Technology Specialist team who deal with SharePoint and each of us has a slightly different focus. The difficulty is seeing where something stops being in my area and starts being in hers. SharePoint is one package, home grown and designed so that every single piece of it is a part of the whole that integrates out of the box exceptionally well.

So, if a company is only interested in one of SharePoint’s many capabilities, the chances are that there’s a cheaper alternative. However, if that same company is interested in two, three, four of those capabilities, then buying everything in one package makes the same sense as buying a multipack of something when you go to the supermarket. The same applies if the company only wants a part of it now, but may want more later. Going for MOSS initially gives them the ability to take advantage of the rest of the features as and when they become relevant.

Going for SharePoint initially doesn’t necessarily mean spending a lot of money to buy MOSS licenses and all that they can do (but my budget metrics won’t complain if you do!). I had a partner comment to me at an event that the problem with SharePoint was that it was all or nothing, whereas buying individual programs from other companies allowed for only implementing the pieces that were most relevant. I’d like to dispel that idea. It might not be a pick and mix solution, but there are three levels of SharePoint.

Windows SharePoint Services 3.0 (WSS) is the lowest level and a lot of companies already have licenses for this if they have Server licenses with Microsoft. WSS doesn’t offer all the shiny functionality of SharePoint, but it’s a good foundation. It offers sites and portals for project management and team collaboration. It offers workflow capabilities, some simple document and web content management along with some simple site and role management infrastructure. It’s not everything by a long way, but it’s a good start. If a company is considering SharePoint, I think that deploying WSS is a great way to begin, rather than trying to do a whole, huge project in one step. Implementing WSS gets the basic functionality of SharePoint in place without (in most cases) needing to pay out for new licenses.

The second level of SharePoint is MOSS standard CAL. This has greater workflow functionality and includes some out of the box workflows. There is better document and web content management, with policy, auditing and records management. The site model allows for much more personalisation and includes a site manager. The search is improved, giving people search and enterprise content search. So, if you’re not interested in business intelligence, the business data catalog or some of the other high-end features of MOSS, the standard CAL might be the way to go.

The third level is MOSS enterprise CAL, which gives all the functionality of SharePoint. To get the enterprise CAL, you have to also get the standard CAL, so this will almost double licensing costs. However, going from standard to enterprise is incredibly easy. It just requires enabling the extra features, rather than doing a new install and deployment. So it’s a simple matter to step up if you initially go for standard and then decide to upgrade.

So, SharePoint may be cheaper than initially thought. If you have a Windows Server 2008 license, you may well have the licenses for a third of SharePoint’s capabilities already. It’s also considerably cheaper than buying the same functionality in smaller programs and it will save you the headache of trying to integrate individual pieces of software.

SharePoint might not be a shiny gadget, but it will do the job it was designed for and do it extremely well. In an economy where cutting costs is on everyone’s mind, that’s worth knowing.

If you’re looking to invest in technology for any of the key areas of SharePoint’s functionality (collaboration, portals, BI, forms, content management, search) it would be worth looking at the cost of the overall solution offered by WSS or MOSS and compare it to the price of a program that would give you only a tiny piece of this huge platform. Don’t spend money on something small and shiny, when you could be spending it on something which will do a whole lot more.