Roadmap to the Future of SharePoint

(cross-posted to the BlueMetal Blog)

This week Microsoft mapped out a bold new plan for SharePoint. Microsoft is investing heavily to modernize the product to make it work as well in the Device and Cloud era as it once did in when the Web was still shiny and new. This article will explain how these changes could affect your organization’s SharePoint plans and how you can start preparing.

FOSP-4Pillars

If you missed the announcement, this is a good place to start. Here are some of the highlights:

  • Modern user experiences: New SharePoint mobile apps for iOS, Windows, and Android; extensive website updates including responsive, mobile-friendly team sites, list and library UI’s; the SharePoint Framework, a new development platform for developing the new responsive web pages and client side web parts. Modern pages and web parts can be added to existing sites to allow a transition.
  • Enhanced collaboration: Office 365 groups will gain related SharePoint sites that will provide their central UI; a new SharePoint home page will provide a launch point to all the SharePoint sites a user needs; a new Site Contents page will include analytics about content usage
  • New Customization Options: In addition to the SharePoint Framework, Microsoft Flow will be integrated with SharePoint, allowing workflows that span Office 365 and other SaaS offerings; the forthcoming PowerApps will integrate with SharePoint lists
  • Enhanced compliance: Differentiated Access Policies that authorize access based on the user, app, device, and network location; new Data Loss Prevention policies for Office 365 and SharePoint 2016, with the ability to apply policies across a tenant, farm or site; more detailed reporting and auditing

There’s a reading list at the end of this article that provide additional detail on all of the newly announced features.

Preparing for a New User Experience

FOSP-SharePoint-team-site-and-mobile-app

SharePoint’s current user interface is based on early 2000’s web technology, and it shows. Usability is poor compared with modern applications and web sites, and adoption and user satisfaction suffer. Microsoft’s Navjot Virk astutely observed, “You cannot have security without usability”; if applications add too much friction, users will go around them and start using consumer offerings that trade compliance for ease of getting work done. This has been a perennial problem for SharePoint, with users falling back to email and file sharing applications that work well across all their devices.

OneDrive for Business has been Microsoft’s attempt to address this, and Microsoft reiterated its promise to make SharePoint sites work with its new sync client by the end of the year. Still this is a very limited solution; while it provides a compliant alternative to consumer file sharing services, it addresses only a tiny subset of SharePoint’s capabilities.

Now Microsoft is rolling out a whole new, mobile ready user experience, including a new mobile application and a complete overhaul of SharePoint’s web user interface.

FOSP-New-Doc-Libs

Office 365 First Release tenants got a preview of this new UI when Microsoft released its new document library UI a couple weeks ago. It can be disabled in tenant administration under a heading called “SharePoint Lists and Libraries Experience,” implying that the list UI update shown on May 4th is part of the same feature.

Another example of this new page model is in the updated Office 365 blogs introduced in April 2015. If you’d like to try a simple precursor to the new editing experience, just create a blog on Office 365 and give it a try.

To prepare for the new mobile experience:

  • The mobile device of choice is clearly iOS; that makes Apple devices (especially phones) a desirable choice for the enterprise. Microsoft will ship the new SharePoint app there first, and it’s likely to continue this trend. If you haven’t already, get an iPhone.
  • Check out the early views of the responsive web UI in the new document library experience and Office 365 blogs.
  • Steer custom development projects towards responsive client-side code. JavaScript (or better, TypeScript) widget development is closer to the new model than any of Microsoft’s released development methodologies. Building widgets now, even on older versions of SharePoint, will save rework when the new page model comes along.
  • Ensure your users have modern desktop browsers. Even now, if you want to have the full experience in Office 365 you need to ditch IE8 and 9; those old browsers are unlikely to work well with the new mobile UI, and they add challenges in developing enhancements or future-proof enhancements to SharePoint.
  • If you’re on premises, open up the firewall to allow mobile apps and browsers in and consider Intune Mobile Device Management to ensure it stays secure. If you’re planning a migration, skip directly to SharePoint 2016 so you can add the promised feature packs next year.

In 2003, in the midst of a shift from client-server to web based computing, IBM tried to transition its Lotus Notes customers to the Java-based IBM Websphere and Workspace products. The shift was too radical, and Microsoft stepped in with simpler alternatives based on its Exchange and SharePoint products.

While it’s not clear if IBM learned from this experience, Microsoft did. Now, as the world moves from web based computing to the device and cloud model, Microsoft is working to provide an evolutionary approach that will keep Exchange and SharePoint users in the Microsoft camp. This week’s announcements are a huge step forward in that evolution.

This is no small feat! It’s like driving a 1967 Corvette Stingray from Boston to Seattle and, without ever stopping, replacing every part in the car so as to arrive in Seattle with a new 2016 model. While there are bound to be a few bumps along the road, it certainly beats completely retooling your environment on a new platform.

Prepare for a new Collaboration Experience

FOSP-SharePoint-home

A perennial challenge in SharePoint has been locating the sites you need. A new SharePoint Home page promises to alleviate this by showing sites the user has followed or used recently, as well as links to organizational sites. Microsoft also introduced a new Site Contents page that includes analytics, as well as the new document library and list UI. It’s actually easy to move and copy files, a simple everyday action that has been extremely difficult in SharePoint to date!

Collaborative workspaces have been a core part of SharePoint since its beginning, but they didn’t always offer the best capabilities. For example, Exchange provides much better messaging and calendars than SharePoint’s equivalents, and OneNote provides a better way to share ad-hoc information than a SharePoint wiki.

In Office 365, where Microsoft controls the versions of all of its services, it’s possible to blend them and provide a truly best of breed experience. Office 365 Groups is the embodiment of this; it provides a team with Exchange messaging and calendar, a OneDrive library, a OneNote notebook, email integration, and a security group. SharePoint was conspicuous in its absence from this story, leading some to think that Microsoft was phasing it out completely.

Now Microsoft has revealed that SharePoint will be a key part of Office 365 groups, and that a SharePoint site will be part of each group. This is great news, but it’s not available on premises. SharePoint groups based on Sites promise to offer the richest available collaboration experience, so enterprises with SharePoint on premises may want to consider a hybrid environment with team collaboration sites in the cloud.

Based on early versions of the SharePoint Framework, it will be possible to build custom list-based applications that include responsive pages to interact with lists and list items. This, combined with the mobile capabilities, will transform SharePoint collaboration.

To prepare for the new collaboration experience:

  • If you’re using SharePoint on premises, consider a hybrid environment with team sites moving to Office 365 groups.
  • Avoid development that modifies SharePoint’s built-in pages, such as list forms and views. Instead, build whole pages based on responsive HTML and JavaScript (or better, TypeScript).
  • Evaluate the new document library UI in a First Release Office 365 tenant and consider your strategy for rollout and training. Note that custom actions are supposed to work but there are bugs at the time of this writing that prevent them from working.

Prepare for a new Development Model

In SharePoint 2013, Microsoft introduced what is now called the add-in model, which is a fine way to develop apps that are sold in a storefront, but which is unnecessarily limiting to enterprises that want to customize an Intranet or thousands of collaboration sites. Many of us moved to writing JavaScript that runs directly on SharePoint pages, a technique that’s easier and more powerful, and that even works on older versions of SharePoint.

FOSP-Addins-vs-ClientSide

Microsoft caught onto this with their Office Developer Patterns and Practices team recommending a pattern called “remote provisioning”, in which an HTML and JavaScript program runs directly on a SharePoint page, or in a script editor or content editor web part. It was only a matter of time before these ideas made it into the mainstream product.

FOSP-The-SharePoint-Framework-page-structure

The new SharePoint Framework will allow writing client web parts and pages for SharePoint. The web parts work in existing “classic” SharePoint pages or in the new modern pages. Modern pages can be added to existing SharePoint sites, allowing the new pages to be phased in over time.

Microsoft plans to open source the SharePoint Framework, following its earlier move to open source the Office look and feel through Office UI Fabric. By combining these technologies, it will be possible to develop web parts and pages that fit seamlessly with the rest of SharePoint, even as SharePoint is updated over time.

Keeping with Microsoft’s move towards open source, the SharePoint Framework tooling is currently built on open source tools like npm, yeoman, and gulp. This, along with a preference for TypeScript over JavaScript, will add to the learning curve for many SharePoint developers. Thankfully, although the SharePoint Framework is written in React, it is framework agnostic and allows development using other frameworks such as Angular, jQuery, or Knockout.

Microsoft also announced integration of Microsoft Flow with SharePoint Online. This technology provides triggers and workflows that operate across multiple SaaS services including Office 365, Google Drive, Slack, DropBox, OneDrive, Twitter, Salesforce, Github, and others. It’s workflow for the cloud era, and it has the potential to change the way people work by stringing these products together.

Along with Flow, Microsoft added SharePoint integration with its forthcoming PowerApps product, which is still in preview at the time of this writing. PowerApps allows creating no-code, mobile friendly apps that work across pretty much the same spectrum of services as Microsoft Flow. PowerApps includes some limited forms capabilities along with tools for browsing and visualizing data, and it might begin to replace InfoPath as a forms option.

Microsoft also announced that the SharePoint Sites (REST) API will be integrated with the Graph API in the second half of 2016. This will allow full access to SharePoint Online sites through a common endpoint and authentication session with the rest of Office 365.

To prepare for the new developer experience:

Prepare for Compliance Features

Enterprises, even those in highly regulated industries, are starting to trust the cloud more and more. Some are even starting to believe that SaaS offerings like Office 365 can be more secure than hosting on premises. Microsoft is adding to this by introducing a number of new compliance features, all of which are “cloud first” and many of which require a Hybrid environment to work with SharePoint farms that are on premises.

This began a couple months ago when Microsoft announced Office 365 Advanced eDiscovery, a service to manage data in Exchange Online, SharePoint Online, OneDrive, and Skype as may be required in a legal case. They also announced Customer Lockbox, which gives customers the ability to control Microsoft’s access to Office 365 content during support incidents.

Microsoft announced a truckload of new compliance services including:

  • Differentiated Access Policies that authorize access based on the user, app, device, and network location
  • New Data Loss Prevention policies for Office 365 and SharePoint 2016, with the ability to apply policies across a tenant, farm or site
  • More detailed reporting and auditing, including a new SharePoint Insights service that aggregates usage and compliance data from on-premises and cloud to the Office 365 Reporting Center
  • More granular access controls, such as the ability to allow only reading a document on an unmanaged device, or to view a document for a specified period of time
  • Ability to centrally log a SharePoint Online user out of all sessions, in the case of a lost or compromised computer
  • New data centers to provide hosting options to address data sovereignty concerns

To prepare for the new compliance features:

  • Consider moving to a cloud or hybrid configuration, as some of these features are likely to be cloud only or to require a hybrid configuration
  • Familiarize yourself with Mobile Device Management for Office 365
  • Consider updating your information architecture and content classification strategy with the new compliance services in mind

Milestones

1H2016

  • Modern document library experience (already available to First Release tenants)
  • Modern lists experience in Office 365
  • Site activity and insights on the Site Contents page in Office 365
  • SharePoint mobile app for iOS
  • SharePoint Home in Office 365
  • Dynamic conditional access policies

2H2016

  • SharePoint mobile app for Windows and Android
  • SharePoint Framework including client-side web parts for existing pages, to be followed with pages and custom sites
  • SharePoint webhooks
  • Sites API is added to the Microsoft Graph
  • Integration of SharePoint sites with Office 365 groups
  • Simpler, faster site creation
  • Modern pages in SharePoint sites
  • Team and organizational news and announcements ???
  • PowerApps and Microsoft Flow integration with SharePoint
  • Bring your own encryption key
  • SharePoint site classification
  • Preview of SharePoint Insights (Hybrid)

2017

  • SharePoint Insights
  • Feature packs for SharePoint 2016 bring the SharePoint Framework and responsive team sites on premises

 

Reading List

The Future of SharePoint, Microsoft Office Blog
https://blogs.office.com/2016/05/04/the-future-of-sharepoint/

The Future of SharePoint, Event Video on Demand (105 minutes)
https://resources.office.com/en-us-landing-the-future-of-sharepoint.html

The Future of SharePoint is All About You, Susan Hanley
http://www.networkworld.com/article/3066041/microsoft-subnet/the-future-of-sharepoint-is-all-about-you.html

Microsoft’s May 4 SharePoint Announcements and Client Side Development Futures, Marc Anderson
http://sympmarc.com/2016/05/04/microsofts-may-4-sharepoint-announcements-and-client-side-development-futures/

Breakdown of the Future of SharePoint Announcements, Christian Buckley
http://www.buckleyplanet.com/2016/05/breakdown-of-the-future-of-sharepoint-announcements.html

SharePoint Framework Initial Questions and Answers, Wictor Wilen
http://www.wictorwilen.se/sharepoint-framework-initial-questions-and-answers

Six Things to Know about the new SharePoint Framework, Doug Ware
http://www.instantquick.com/index.php/six-things-to-know-about-the-newly-ann

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