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If we could really say what the future holds for SharePoint, we could probably sell the information back to Microsoft. All the signs point to major changes — but they also point to the fact that Microsoft is still dithering. While the company has committed to another on-premises version, after that all bets are off.

But let's speculate. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has made no bones about where he is talking Microsoft: “Mobile First, Cloud Frist.” There is no reason to think that he won’t do the same with SharePoint and certainly over the past months the developments around SharePoint Online have been mouthwatering.

Other Options

Over the past few years, many SharePoint users have become increasingly frustrated with what they perceive as a platform that is overly complicated, difficult to use and far too weighty for their daily needs.

The result is that many enterprises are looking at alternatives to cover their file and collaboration needs, feeding into the developing enterprise file sync and share (EFSS) market and prompting Microsoft to release its own collaborative application in the guise of OneDrive for Business.

But let’s take a step back to the middle of 2013, when David Lavenda predicted that 2014 would be dominated by the waning of SharePoint as a standalone product. He also noted that as this process gains momentum, SharePoint will become increasingly critical to Office 365 and Microsoft’s new “device and service” strategy, asking: "How will Microsoft deal with holes in its current offering? These will continue to be filled by third party Microsoft partners. Microsoft has long relied upon a robust third-party partner community, so this is nothing new. With partner offerings, Office 365 is today a complete solution for many organizations.

While there hasn’t been much of a consensus about what kind of functionality is needed in SharePoint, it is generally accepted that the future is in the cloud and that Microsoft is trying to coax existing customers in that direction

That said, it’s a long road ahead and Jim Murphy, research vice president at Gartner, pointed out that it will be at least 10 years, if not longer, before enterprises that are using SharePoint are forced to jump to the SharePoint cloud.

He points out that mainstream support for the latest version of SharePoint — SharePoint 2013 — will last at least until 2018, and that if the example of Windows XP is anything to go by, users will be able to buy more time until they get it together enough to move on.

Add to that a new version of SharePoint on-premises, probably in the middle of next year, and users have up until well after 2020 before they have to do anything.

None of this is a secret though. Microsoft has been perfectly clear about its cloud ambitions, which were outlined quite clearly at the SharePoint conference in March this year.

Taking a number of quotes from senior Microsoft strategists, all point to the development of SharePoint for the cloud as well as Microsoft's hesitancy to move everything there.

Jeff Teper, vice president of corporate strategy at Microsoft, told the audience there will likely be a new version of SharePoint and Exchange Server in 2015. "But I think we can do a better job in the cloud," he said, adding later, "The cloud is the key."

Teper did not say that the new version of SharePoint will be cloud-only, but stressed that Microsoft is encouraging people to make the move.

Collaboration, OneDrive and SharePoint

In the face of this, momentum for SharePoint alternatives has gathered, especially across enterprises that find SharePoint overly complicated for their collaboration needs. Steven Pogrebivsky, co-founder and CEO of MetaVis Technologies, pointed out that this lesson is not being missed by Microsoft, which pulled OneDrive for Business out of Office 365 and started offering it as a standalone application.

OneDrive for Business is Microsoft’s EFSS and collaboration service. It used to be part of Office 365, but as of March this year it became available as a standalone subscription service.

This is good news for those who want the simplicity of Dropbox, but the security and control of Office 365. While some might see this as competition for the usual suspects in the file sharing space — Dropbox, Box, Google Drive — I think it's a possible alternative to another, namely, SharePoint," Pogrebivsky wrote at the time.

Along with the announcement of the standalone version, Microsoft also talked up some of the features of the file sharing service that aimed to make it more attractive for business users, including site folder views that show the contents of Document Libraries for the sites you are following, easier access to OneDrive
improvements and more.

The move to make OneDrive a standalone service was a smart one, Pogrebivsky wrote.

We’ve seen more movement in the file sharing space in the last year or more than we’ve seen with other technologies. It’s simple — people (consumer and business) are looking for ways to share and collaborate easily. The cloud allows them to do that. And services like Dropbox, Box, Google Drive and OneDrive are all going to be competing for mindshare."

But it’s not just these file sharing competitors that will have to take on OneDrive. SharePoint is going to take a big hit too. We think for many, OneDrive is the SharePoint alternative many organizations have dreamed of.

Already Legacy?

In fact, for Lane Steverson, practice lead at DocuLabs, SharePoint on-premises is already a legacy system, built for a world that needed a better enterprise solution for basic document and information management capabilities than was available in the days before SharePoint 2003.

All that’s changed now and enterprise workers need to access to what they want, when they want it, from any device available. Now the EFSS market is more radically focused on user experience.

This, Lane said, takes document management into the cloud and delivers a simple, multi-device, experience for a world where knowledge workers work on laptops in meetings, smart phones while traveling and tablets while watching TV at night. And despite the strides made by Office 365, SharePoint Online is still only a shadow of the on-premises version.

That is not to say that either SharePoint or the legacy systems will disappear. Microsoft will win the battle as the de facto content management interface because SharePoint is sufficient, not because it has the most capabilities or the most revolutionary vision or even the best user interface (UI) or any other measure you can grade it on. As Lane wrote

You might disagree with my assessment of SharePoint. But Office 365 is a portent of things to come. We are facing a future that will have at least three layers of content management capabilities: Sync and Share, SharePoint and Legacy ECM. And within each of these categories you will likely face fragmentation. Some parts of your organization will go out on their own and subscribe to Box, SpringCM, Dropbox or other solution. IT might declare Office 365 the standard. SharePoint will continue to live on in multiple instances: 2007, 2010, and 2013 and so on, ad nauseam."

Why SharePoint Fails

Why has SharePoint on-premises fallen out of favor? Wendy Neal, a senior SharePoint consultant for McGladrey, has investigated why workers don’t take to SharePoint in the enterprise. Some of the most common explanations:

  • Lack of Vision or Clear Plan: Many companies think of SharePoint as simply a product that you install on the server and allow everyone to start using. That couldn't be further from the truth.
  • Lack of Time and Resources: Often, organizations will designate one or two people from each team as team site owners and expect them to set up and maintain the content. What they don't realize is the amount of time this takes away from the person's regular day job.
  • Lack of User Buy In or Change Management Plan: Using SharePoint requires a substantial change in the way people process information and perform their day-to-day tasks. Users need to be included in the project from the beginning
  • Inadequate User Training: You can’t just deploy SharePoint walk away and expect that people will start using it. Even if you do have a plan, and have gotten your users on board with it, they still need to know how to use the new system.

If all this appears bit inconclusive, it’s only because what is happening with SharePoint at the moment is only at the halfway mark between cloud and on-premises. SharePoint’s future is not on-premises, but it doesn’t look like it’s going to be in the cloud exclusively either.

SharePoint 2015

Neither will the future of anything else, though, as it’s quite clear at the moment that hybrid computing is the wave of the immediate future.

Kevin Conroy, founder and president of Blue Rooster, has a number suggestions. While SharePoint may not be perfect, he wrote, the technology is something many enterprises count on. There has been great growth and energy in SharePoint over the past year and there are some events and developments that will be driving the technology next year.

Among those developments is Delve, powered by Office Graph, which will make all configuration and customization of the interface unnecessary because it’s smart enough to know what you need.

Yammer is going to play a big role, too. It's no longer seen as a “Just Add Content” kind of enterprise social solution, Conroy noted, with companies now being more strategic about how they implement it

This is only a brief overview of the major trends running across the enterprise space at the moment and which are likely to continue over the coming months. Where they take us by the end of next year is not clear, but that’s hardly surprising given that Microsoft seems unsure itself.