While Yahoo, Microsoft, and others have spotted Google a huge lead in search, Microsoft appears to be putting its head down and digging in to make up some ground on the leader. Microsoft is obviously stepping up its rhetoric and its investment in search, as witnessed this week when Bill Gates touted a new approach to enterprise search at the annual CEO Summit that Microsoft hosts in Redmond.

The enterprise search concept that Gates laid out is called the “Knowledge Network” and it uses social networking concepts to build an understanding of relationships between workers and the vast stores of data across an internal corporate network (in file servers, databases, e-mail, etc) and then use that information to inform searches from any of the users. This technology will come to life in the next version of SharePoint – SharePoint Server 2007. That’s the problem.

Let me first say a couple of positive things about SharePoint. Surprisingly, a lot of companies are using it. Last year at TechEd, virtually every administrator and IT manager that I spoke with was at least playing around with using SharePoint for intranet purposes, and several of them had built major internal portals on it. And I was asking because I had tried a SharePoint site myself and used it for communications with my team. We had mixed results but there were definitely some things I liked. The bottom line is that if Microsoft wants to build an internal search product around a popular LAN platform then SharePoint makes some sense.

That being said, there is one big problem with SharePoint – speed. It is joined at the hip with a database – either MSDE or SQL Server – and that seems to make some routine tasks (like updating a shared calendar) run a lot slower than they need to. Last fall in Redmond I talked to a Microsoft MVP that has built a big SharePoint portal (the most impressive one I’ve seen) and is testing the next version of SharePoint. After talking about some of the good things you can do with SharePoint, I asked him if the laggard performance in SharePoint 2003 was improved in the next version of the software. He looked at me sheepishly and said, “Well, they are actually trying to get it back to the performance of 2003.”

After seeing my shocked silence he explained that, because of some changes, the latest version of SharePoint was honestly slower than 2003, but that the product team was working to achieve the same level of performance that it had in SharePoint 2003. I was really disappointed to hear that because I felt like that was the biggest thing holding back SharePoint. Keep in mind that this was eight months ago and the SharePoint product team could have made huge strides since then, but it’s difficult for me to count on that.

If SharePoint makes me wait to do basic tasks like entering a calendar entry, how is it going to provide a timely search result on the kind of expansive data query that Gates is talking about with “Knowledge Network”? If Microsoft does not solve the performance issue with SharePoint, I doubt that this new search idea will ever have the chance to succeed.