What is SharePoint’s Future?

Asphalt road in an autumn fogWhilst some may say that the future of SharePoint is in the cloud, others may question if SharePoint has a future at all. At the moment, SharePoint’s value deteriorates in its online form

— 23rd Sept: An update has been added to the end of this post —

In response to sessions presented during the annual Gartner Portal and Collaboration Conference being held in London this week, CMSWire has an article that generated quite a lot of retweeting – The Future of SharePoint is in the Cloud

As the article notes, this is not a shock to anyone who follows Microsoft in the news.

What is interesting is that the alternative scenario is not mentioned – does SharePoint have a future at all?

The article highlights reasons why it is going to become inevitable for organisations to consider moving to Office 365, Microsoft’s online subscription service:  Microsoft is now releasing features and capabilities that are not available for traditional on-premise or managed server deployments. Such as:

  • Office Graph (Delve)
  • Social Productivity with Yammer
  • Office 365 Video Portal
  • Microsoft OneDrive
  • Office for iPad/iPhone
  • User-Based Subscription Pricing

But of these six releases, only one actually requires SharePoint. And it’s not available yet – the Office 365 Video Portal.

Office Graph is a new way to surface information that may be of interest to you based on your interactions with others. It is primarily designed for integration with conversational tools such as Outlook, Yammer and Lync. Content may be stored in SharePoint but it could just as easily be held in OneDrive. And Office Graph, being called Delve (formerly codename Oslo) is being pitched by Microsoft as a replacement for traditional search that is a core part of SharePoint.

Social Productivity with Yammer – this is the ability to host and view conversations alongside Office documents that the conversations are about. Those documents have to be stored online within Office 365 to use this feature (and you have to use Office web apps for now) but the documents can be stored on SharePoint or OneDrive for Business. There is no preference.

Microsoft OneDrive (for Business) – is Microsoft’s file sync-n-share tool, similar to rivals such as DropBox, Box and GoogleDrive. As of March this year, it has been decoupled from SharePoint. You can host files direct in OneDrive for Business without needing to upload to a SharePoint site.

Office for iPad/iPhone – mobile versions of the traditional productivity apps – Word, Excel and PowerPoint + OneDrive and Lync. None of which require the content to be stored in SharePoint. And the apps list OneDrive folders first… if you want to be able to sync and view those files offline, they need to be in OneDrive. They don’t need to be in SharePoint.

User-based Subscription Pricing – well that’s just the payment model for an Office 365 subscription, regardless of how much or how little you use of each of the different services included with the subscription

What SharePoint has lost

Since the release of SharePoint 2013 Server on-premise and SharePoint Online as part of an Office 365 subscription (both launched in February 2013), SharePoint has lost the following features

  • SharePoint Designer now has no design view – web designers are encouraged to use other mainstream tools instead for designing web sites and then import those components via the new Design Manager
  • InfoPath has been announced as ‘end of life’ (in February 2014) – SharePoint currently has no roadmap for web forms and workflow at the moment (rumours circulated in March that Nintex was going to be acquired but that’s not yet happened)
  • Access Apps are being pitched as the remaining forms-based solution, but without any workflow. And the SharePoint Online Access Apps have significantly reduced functionality compared to the original Access Services included with SharePoint Server Enterprise Edition. Offline access to data or backups for starters…
  • All social features have been announced ‘end of life’ (confirmed in March 2014) following completion of the Yammer acquisition
  • Yammer is introducing enhanced group capabilities for team-based collaboration that previously were the focus of SharePoint team sites
  • OneDrive for Business (formerly SkyDrive for Business) has been decoupled from SharePoint Online to provide standalone file sync-n-share capabilities

What is SharePoint good for?

So should everyone be abandoning their SharePoint investments?

Well I wouldn’t be so hasty. There are still plenty of scenarios that SharePoint and other comparable ECM/EDRMS solutions are needed for and/or out-perform the newer alternatives:

  • Metadata-driven solutions – for both web content and document management scenarios. Navigation trumps search for many productivity scenarios involving documents and forms at the business function and project level. Such solutions often manage business critical intellectual property and deliver demonstrable productivity gains / business value
  • Enterprise search solutions – when searching for massive gobs of data organisation-wide, a gutsy enterprise search solution with the ability to connect and federate multiple sources of content trumps most navigation and manual classification efforts. The FAST enterprise search suite has now been fully integrated into SharePoint following its acquisition in 2010.
  • Document and records management – intellectual property protection, compliance and legal retention requirements demand confidence in and dictate how, where and for how long content is stored. File ‘sync-n-share’ is a nightmare-inducing headache for records managers and compliance officers who hold accountability when a legal matter arises
  • Digital workplace platform and portals – whilst there is growing recognition that the intranet is growing beyond being a publishing web site and needs to act more as a service layer connecting content, conversations and actions, there is still the need for a starting point. And that starting point is usually a web site, not a folder.
  • ‘Quick fix’ web-based solutions – SharePoint still contains a variety of features that make it easy to quickly create applications to solve immediate business needs. The classic benefit from deploying a platform – reusable skills and capabilities. Such solutions may be temporary until a formal business application is procured, but a common platform and skill set can prove invaluable for IT to be able to rapidly respond and adapt to unexpected and unplanned business demands using existing technology investments

Online versus On-premise (or Managed Service)

One aspect that I rarely see articulated but have seen first-hand is that SharePoint’s value currently deteriorates online compared to what can be achieved when installed locally on-premise or run as a managed service*. In other words, SharePoint Server, whilst it may not be receiving the cool new toys, is still a more powerful platform for delivering content-driven solutions than SharePoint Online. Especially so if there is a need/desire to integrate with business systems and other data repositories. And content-driven solutions are the dominant reason for using SharePoint. Whether it is to protect intellectual property or to leverage it within everyday decisions and processes.

Having worked extensively with SharePoint Server and Online over the past 18 months, on projects for clients and for research purposes, Server trumps Online in most cases. The scenarios where being online matters more are mostly mobile ones. And for now, pervasive connectivity is still not guaranteed or freely available. Mobile content-driven solutions need to work offline. SharePoint Online does not offer that capability without a lot of outside assistance. OneDrive for Business does. That’s why file sync-n-share scenarios are so popular right now and disrupting lower-level document management solutions. The one key area where SharePoint Online trumps on-premise is in reducing IT overhead to manage the underlying service. There is no doubting the convenience of simply procuring additional user licenses and scaling up/down services to meet variable demand without needing to architect or own the infrastructure. And the general per-user subscription model is a lot cheaper and more flexible than a managed service or dedicated plans for Office 365.

Microsoft has committed to at least one more Server-based release of SharePoint. And there will probably be more. However I can imagine a scenario where they are not released for general use and instead are only available through licensed managed service providers, able to offer hosted SharePoint Server (probably running on Azure) with the full set of richer but more complicated and customisable features that Microsoft realistically cannot offer as part of a general Office 365 subscription and that most organisations would struggle to manage (cost) effectively on-premise.

What do customers want?

To wrap-up, it’s telling that Microsoft seems to barely mention SharePoint when talking about Office 365 futures these days. But Gartner clients still think it matters:


Source: Finlay Mure on Twitter

Excluding conferencing, that graph matches my interactions with clients. Nobody would disagree with the view that cloud computing will come to dominate in time. But we are still at the very early stages of that transition. It’s important to observe and prepare for disruptive trends but there was a great business quote shared via Forbes daily quotes recently:

“The most successful businessman is the man who holds onto the old just as long as it is good and grabs the new just as soon as it is better” – Robert P Vanderpoel

The point at which cloud computing becomes better than on-premise solutions will differ across industries and organisations. That is true generally, and also for SharePoint. And also for Microsoft. The Office 365 subscription is being enhanced to rival and outperform its competitors. And in that market, most of the competition does not have a high-end web content management platform included within the subscription. SharePoint ‘as is’ is more than good enough. The focus for online subscriptions is firmly on enhancing real-time communications and mobile productivity

— Update 23rd Sept —

What happens when features are killed online?

Since publishing this article, ‘Absolute SharePoint’ has posted about features being removed from SharePoint Online. Most are not a surprise as they are social features being replaced by Yammer. But one is causing some ripples – the ‘My Tasks’ functionality. Whilst it is understandable to see the MySites functionality being stripped back, the ‘My Tasks’ feature is popular with building lightweight project management solutions that Yammer would not currently be a suitable alternative for.

But the news also gives a glimpse of how feature alterations are being handled in the online service. The announcement has not been posted on a prominent Microsoft blog (or rather, nothing showed up in search results and the SharePoint blogger does not quote a source). I tracked down the source to within the Message Center in the Office 365 Admin Portal:

Microsoft Office 365 Message Center Notice


That’s all there is to say about removing a feature that has been very popular – do a search on your favourite Internet search engine for ‘SharePoint My Tasks’. A short notice posted on the Message Center that the feature is being deprecated within the ‘coming weeks’, however long that may be, and that current implementations of the feature will remain functional for one year. After that, poof! any solutions dependent on the feature will have to find something else to do. If you click on the ‘Additional Information’ link within the Message Center post (not the link above, that’s just a screen grab), it takes you to a KnowledgeBase article about how to manually restore the Tasks link.

This is another clear difference between online and on-premise/managed server. All server products are supported in their entirety for 10 years – 5 years mainstream support, 5 years optional paid support. It seems online features are supported for as long as they are useful, can be removed within weeks, with a 1 year notice for existing instances to migrate to something else.

It is a little disconcerting for anyone building solutions on SharePoint Online. Whilst the core features are unlikely to be affected quite as drastically as this, features at the edges are a riskier bet.


Related blog post

* Managed services are often also hosted online or at an outsourced data center. They differ from an Office 365 subscription because the full server products are still installed and maintained

This article was originally published on http://www.sharepointsharon.com