SharePoint Conference in Perspective - What to Make of the Changes in SP2013?

  • 30-Nov-2012

Microsoft has released the latest version of SharePoint with a bang.  If you've been following twitter or the various SharePoint-centric blogs, you've probably been inundated with more SharePoint Conference content than you can handle (that is if you weren't at the conference, since spotty WiFi connections make everyone cranky).   That said, the fact that Microsoft continues to hold this annual conference in Las Vegas should be telling: Redmond is still betting big on SharePoint.

According to Microsoft, SharePoint has grown quite a bit since last year's conference.  If the 10,000 attendees (from 84 countries) is not enough to get your attention, the approximately $2B in revenue should.

This year's conference was special in that Microsoft made public an RTM (release to manufacturing -- Microsoft's way of saying "it's ready") version both the latest version of SharePoint and Office.  Both products dubbed 2013 sported a new visual design aesthetic and plenty of new features.  However, the big question is, "what's actually changed?"

To answer this question, Microsoft responded with three major themes: Social, Cloud, and User Experience.

Unfortunately, the words by themselves offer little insight to the average conference attendee or watcher of all things Microsoft.  To that end, here's a brief summary of what each of the themes mean.

Cloud

Many organizations (mostly smaller to mid-sized firms) are already using Office 365.  If you're not familiar with the service, we wrote an Advisory Paper critiquing this offering.  Office 365 represents a Microsoft-hosted and managed collection of Exchange, SharePoint, Lync, and Office, based on a monthly, per-user subscription model.  While this service has been around for quite a while (since 2008, though it was called BPOS at the time), the products lacked direct parity with their on-premise siblings.  For example, until the latest release of SharePoint Online (the SharePoint bit of Office 365), customers had little customization capabilities.  While some of the restrictions have been lifted, there are still quite a few challenges in developing a customer-centric solutions using SharePoint Online.

For the 2013 round, Microsoft invested heavily in both infrastructure and experience dimensions to support a multi-tenant SharePoint environment that provided better functional parity with on-premise implementation, as well as vastly improved performance.  In fact, according to Microsoft, some kinds of operations have improved by 40 to 50%.  Part of the changes made also include closer (but not complete) coupling the Office 365 infrastructure with the larger cloud platform, Azure.

The two versions of SharePoint are still not quite at parity, even if Microsoft has clearly spent a great deal of time and effort trying to get them close.  If you want to know the differences, you'll be hard-pressed to get precise answers; even Microsoft employees could not enumerate what differences existed, just that there is not yet true parity.

Moreover, as Real Story Group subscribers know, there are real issues with hybrid Cloud/on-premise deployments.

Social

As the default collaboration platform inside of many enterprises, SharePoint's lack of social features has been a constant concern for customers.

To Microsoft's credit, they attacked this problem in two ways: creating some new social features inside of SharePoint natively (largely building on what was already in the 2010 version) and buying Yammer to give them additional social capabilities, technology, and skills.  In reality, the first approach was the only investment that paid out this round.  Yammer got acquired too late in the development cycle and, even in the keynote speeches, the Yammer story was simply, "it's coming."

Generally, Microsoft was able to deliver a more competent social experience.  They provide an enhanced personal site experience (My Sites are gone -- more on that later) that rolls up your activities within SharePoint, even across sites and tasks in Exchange.  Sites within the SharePoint get automatically enabled with discussion and micro-blogging concepts (security trimmed) and, as you'd expect, a full complement of newly re-architected social programming interfaces for inevitable extension or customization.

I found some of the new social features a little confusing and I became even more confused when overlaid on Yammer.  The social experience feels a bit scattered, and many features seemed duplicative of what Yammer could already provide (albeit not integrated).  Further, many large organizations are already reluctant to enable My Sites for fear of both excessive storage consumption and viral site propagation.

Microsoft is clearly excited by what they've delivered. The actual velocity of adoption remains to be seen, since Redmond is still not delivering the kind of prepackaged social applications that business users want, nor a comprehensive, enterprise-wide social layer that seems increasingly necessary.

User Experience

User Experience (or UX) became a very prominent feature of the conference and, especially the keynotes.  Next to Social, UX seemed to get the most attention from the speakers.  On the surface (no pun intended), the now famous "we can no longer call it Metro" design aesthetic has supplanted the heavier interfaces of the 2010 era.  SharePoint's new interfaces do feel much lighter and easier to navigate.  What surprised me was that many features remain where they've always existed, but the design approach, nomenclature, and functional density (how many functions are presented simultaneously) give you a sense of a much lighter interface.  This is also true of Office, Exchange, and Lync.

Microsoft also gave a great deal of thought to the experience beyond what hits the eyes.  As previously mentioned, performance has been improved.  The keynote demonstrated a SharePoint site running in the Netherlands, and performance was quite snappy.  Microsoft attributes the performance improvements to refactoring their interface code, extensive use of caching, using differencing techniques (i.e., don't send the whole document, just the bits that changed), and making broader use of client-side interactions (think JavaScript and specifically jQuery).  This should all add up to a less frustrating experience for many end users.  Having worked with the preview version for a few months now, even the beta code was faster than the production Office 365 environment I use frequently.

Will these changes will be enough?  Snappier performance is certainly welcome, but the jury's still out on the new interface paradigm in the workplace.

As I've mentioned in the past, Microsoft has largely dominated this space by creating simple and purpose-built tools that addressed a broad set of needs.  Today, SharePoint is a behemoth that, in the words of Chevy Chase from the "New Shimmer" SNL skit -- "it's both a dessert topping AND a floor wax!"  SharePoint has become the answer to any question and the solution to any problem, given sufficient time, money and 3rd party products (see a previous post on "the end of [portal] history").  In SharePoint, Microsoft has created a product very much like the competitors they bested in the early part of the last decade. It's reasonable to ask whether SharePoint could suffer the same fate, at the hands of upstarts like Box.

Concluding Thoughts

The release of SharePoint 2013 offers many of the same promises the previous versions promoted.  It is absolutely true that 2013 is the best SharePoint release to date.  From the refreshed visual design, improved performance, updated social features, improved sharing with nice security controls, and better Cloud alternatives, SharePoint has come a long way.

Beyond that, one of the biggest features that doesn't neatly fall into any of the three categories exclusively is the idea of "apps."  This is a big shift primarily for developers, though it carries the implication that Microsoft no longer views SharePoint exclusively through the lens of an omnibus platform.

However, it is also true that SharePoint still has both new and old challenges to overcome.

For example, many "pillars" like Web Content & Experience Management have remained largely unchanged. (RSG subscribers will learn more about that shortly.) And before you mention the demo of creating a display template with Dreamweaver, I'll remind you that a base SharePoint-powered website still has the same infrastructure requirements as a collaborative intranet -- at least 24 Gb of RAM for a webserver, lots of disk space, and at least three servers.  If you want to take advantage of the "continuous" crawl feature of the new SharePoint Search (an upgraded FAST derivative), you'll need a fourth box and potentially another database server.  It's become a very expensive proposition to solve a relatively commonplace need, and SharePoint still does not address many e-marketing requirements that simpler and much cheaper WCXM tools offer.

RSG advisory customers know that each new version of any technology platform carries both the promise of a better world and the agony of the upgrade.  SharePoint 2013 is no exception.   Stay tuned for additional updates as we continue our discussions with early adopters and the ISV community to get the real story.

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