Microsoft Outlines Its Plan to Evolve SharePoint for the Cloud First, Mobile First Era

While “mobile first, cloud first” has caused some confusion and even fear with fans and users of Microsoft’s client systems, the impact of this strategy on the firm’s on-premises servers is no less dramatic. With worries about the future mounting, Microsoft this week finally began addressing how and when it will update its servers for this new age. And SharePoint is the latest product to get the full disclosure treatment.

Late last week, Microsoft admitted that it had decoupled development of Windows Server vNext from Windows 10, and would delay the release of the server product into some time in 2016. The software giant didn’t explicitly explain its reasoning behind the delay, but there are a number of theories tied to the support expiration of Windows Server 2003, the generally slow pace of server OS adoption, and a new acceptance of workload migration to the cloud.

SharePoint, of course, is a different animal.

Originally developed as an in-house team content collaboration solution, SharePoint has evolved over the years with new experiences—portals, search, business intelligence (BI) and enterprise content management (ECM)—management capabilities, and extensibility. And of course it’s moved from the data center to the cloud as SharePoint Online, a component of Office 365 for businesses. Today, Microsoft focuses its development efforts on the cloud first, so while it will continue to offer on-premises versions of SharePoint, those versions may trail the cloud. And they will not necessarily offer the same range of functionality, a gap that I feel can only grow over time.

This kind of disparity and change is the source of that confusion and fear. But as Office general manager Julia White explained in a recent blog post, this natural evolution conforms to how Microsoft’s customers are evolving and, more important, helps the software giant create more elegant solutions that are impossible with purely on-premises products.

“The cloud enables us to bring the experiences, management and extensibility together across not just SharePoint, but all of the Office technologies,” White writes, alluding to the dramatic changes Microsoft can make when it knows all customers have access to other Office cloud services and not just SharePoint. “We can finally break down individual product installations into a cohesive productivity solution, enabling holistic capabilities that provide greater value to customers and partners. The cloud also allows us to rapidly innovate and deliver new experiences faster than ever before. At the same time, we’re building collaboration, mobility and machine learning capabilities right into all of the Office experiences, enabling a generational transformation in the way people work.”

For SharePoint explicitly, Microsoft is working on new cloud and on-premises versions of the product and will continue to offer hybrid solutions that let enterprises deploy both side-by-side. And while the post isn’t always clear about which will be available only in the cloud, White offered a peek at some SharePoint capabilities that will evolve going forward. These are:

From Search to Delve. While enterprise search is a useful capability, SharePoint will go beyond search with a capability called Delve. This is “a new way to discover relevant information and connections from data across Office 365, as well as provide predictive search capabilities,” and it builds off of the machine learning capabilities of a technology called Office Graph, which draws connects between people and the data they need.

NextGen portals. SharePoint’s portal functionality may have put this solution on the map but a new generation portal technology, aptly called NextGen Portals, will provide customers with a library of new “ready-to-go” portals that save time, money and effort. “NextGen Portals, by design, are intelligent, collaborative, mobile and ready to go,” White says. Office 365 Video was the first NextGen Portal, but White says Microsoft will add new portals focused on knowledge management and people in 2015.

OneDrive. SharePoint’s OneDrive for Business offering is still based on the Groove technology Microsoft acquired a decade ago, but it too is evolving alongside the consumer OneDrive offering document and file storage and management. Of course, the business offering will also provide the security, reliability and manageability required by IT, and the service will be available to users of popular mobile platforms and of course Windows and Mac.

Team Sites. SharePoint’s Sites capability is evolving “within Office 365,” White says, which means “beyond SharePoint. That is, in Office 365, Sites can include SharePoint content as before, but also “email, instant messaging, tasks, contacts, personal files, social feeds and more” from elsewhere—Exchange Online, Lync Online—in Office 365.

Business intelligence. Another feature that appears to be exclusive to Office 365, Power BI is a cloud-based business analytics service that “provides an integrated analytical platform in the cloud that connects to your important information from where it lives via the Excel interface users know.”

Social. Microsoft moved quite quickly to add social networking functionality to SharePoint years ago and then of course the firm bought Yammer in 2012, dramatically expanding those capabilities. Now, Microsoft is further expanding its social capabilities by making Yammer functionality available across Office 365 and with Dynamics CRM and as well. (In fact, the Office Graph and Delve features noted above have roots in Yammer.)

Management capabilities. As you might expect, Microsoft is promising a unified management experience for enterprises that opt for hybrid deployments. And it is further promising a “unified experience for compliance, management and IT controls that span across Office 365—in addition to SharePoint, across Exchange, Lync and all of the new experiences.”

Extensibility. SharePoint’s success can be tied directly to its extensibility capabilities, and while initial cloud-based SharePoint versions lacked some important on-premises extensibility functionality, those days are long gone. Today, Microsoft is evolving the app model it launched with SharePoint 2013 and is extending it in the cloud with a new set of Office 365 APIs that target existing and new (Office Graph, Office 365 Video and so on) features.

White didn’t explicitly mention a timeline or announce any new products this week. But if you are looking for more details about the continued evolution of SharePoint, you won’t have long to wait: White notes that Microsoft will share more details about the product in early May at its Ignite conference in Chicago. There, she writes, “the best and brightest minds [will be] in one place to share all things SharePoint and Office 365.”