The Future of SharePoint

Over the past 1,5 years, speculations about the future of SharePoint have been running high. Much has been said already that people generally agree on:

  • Microsoft’s main focus is towards the cloud, the online version of SharePoint will get more and faster updates than the on-premise version.
  • The SharePoint brand name is getting less and less attention. Microsoft cancelling the big annual SharePoint conference in Las Vegas, in favour of the new, much broader Ignite conference (which again has cloud-related developments as one of its key topics)
  • Public internet sites are no longer a priority for SharePoint. This is confirmed by the recent announcement that the SharePoint Public Website feature (used for creating public internet sites) is no longer available in Office 365 for new customers as of January 2015, meaning the focus is on collaboration and document management capabilities – which has always been the strongest part of SharePoint, so a logical decision from my point of view.

The area where there is more unclarity and a lot less consensus, is what will happen with SharePoint on-premise, and more specifically, what companies should do who are now using SharePoint on-prem. Several analysts are saying that companies should shy away from installing and maintaining SharePoint in-house if they can. Or perhaps, depending on the functionality they use in SharePoint, even consider moving to another product altogether.

The speed at which devices and cloud services are taking over the world has been astounding. Going from SharePoint 2010 to 2013, Microsoft could not have foreseen how fast these changes would occur, but they’ve tried to accommodate as best they could. The acquisition of Yammer in June of 2012 and the huge investments in Office 365 over the last few years are samples of their efforts. Just look at the Office 365 roadmap and see the amount of updates rolled out, rolling out or in development.

Of course I understand we all want to work with the newest products, “newer is better”, cloud-first, mobile-first, and so on. My main concern with this is that a lot of IT people have a tendency to jump on the bandwagon here. Companies should always, always consider the business scenario that they need to support, the life-expectancy of that scenario and of the system(s) supporting it. Let me give you a simple example.
As most SharePoint-aware folks will know, InfoPath (Microsoft’s product for creating and hosting electronic forms) will not get a new version anymore. As a result I’ve heard several people state that we should definitely not use InfoPath anymore for the creation of new electronic forms. That simply does not make sense to me. The correct answer is: it depends.

Suppose you have a limited set of electronic forms, which is not likely to grow very much. And you need to add a simple new form, something along the lines of visitor announcements or booking a meal. What technology are you going to use?
Consider this: Microsoft extended support for SharePoint 2010 (on-premise) ends in 2020. If you’re on SharePoint 2013, that support will end only by 2023. And although deprecated, I’m fairly sure it will be supported in the next SharePoint version – and if not someone will undoubtedly find a way to get InfoPath forms working there as well.
Sure, if you are already moving towards the cloud I can understand the need for a different approach to any existing electronic forms, so you can then benefit from the regular automatic product updates. But what if you have a local SharePoint farm with no immediate need to move to Office 365? Migrations are hassle; they always tend to be a kind of big-bang, even if you ‘just’ move from one product version to the version after that. So are you really going to invest in new technology for electronic forms, when you have fully-supported, purpose-built (InfoPath) technology at your disposal that can easily create these forms? I would say no, especially if you consider that a real alternative for InfoPath hasn’t even been announced yet by Microsoft at the time of writing.

On a broader scale, the same logic applies. It fully depends on the actual situation of your organization if there is really a need to move to the cloud for (part of) your SharePoint functional landscape. In other words: there is still hope for new on-prem SharePoint customizations. Just dismissing this as an obsolete approach at this point in time seems plain wrong to me.

Having said that, SharePoint will definitely move away from on-premise. I’m not sure if even Microsoft has decided when this will happen. I wouldn’t be surprised if a “light” version of SharePoint collaboration and document management functionality will remain as a part of local Office installations, but chances are that SharePoint as we know it will disappear as a separately sold product – before 2020 if I would have to take a guess. Is that bad? No it’s not; I think it’s a good thing.

A major problem with SharePoint has always been that it can do so much, that it becomes hard to explain what SharePoint actually is. Many decision makers probably still don’t quite understand. And as the saying goes in Dutch: unknown, unloved. It was for a reason that SharePoint 2007 was officially called Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007. The close link to Office was always part of Microsoft’s vision. The “Office” part never caught on though and was removed in the SharePoint 2010 name to indicate they were still different products. At the time that was true, but this was because Office and SharePoint simply weren’t ready yet for the one product absorbing the other. This is now changing rapidly, and Office 365 will be the better for it.

In the meantime, stick to on-premise, move to the cloud, or do a bit of both, whatever suits you as an organization. These all qualify as excellent choices.

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