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The volume on the cloud conversation in the information technology space has gotten louder, and that’s particularly true for those of us making a living in and around SharePoint. Ever since Steve Ballmer declared that Microsoft was “all in” with the cloud back in March of 2010, we've been seeing and hearing more about Azure, SharePoint in the cloud, and especially Office 365.

In the last year or so, the push towards Office 365 in marketing and discussion in particular has gone up. Way up.

When I first heard the predictions that large companies would be abandoning their on-premises implementations of SharePoint to migrate to Office 365, I had a hard time believing it. Even now, I remain skeptical. I am aware that many organizations are investigating the Cloud, seeing which workloads they can safely place there, and trying it out. What I haven’t seen, though, is a steady stream of stories indicating that enterprise customers are abandoning their investments in business-critical infrastructure and personnel to risk it all in an arena that holds much promise but is short on definitive answers to some important questions.

For example, who really owns the data out in the Cloud? Who should be called if a Cloud-based system goes down? What happens to you and your data if your Cloud provider goes belly-up and stops operating tomorrow?

Whether or not many large organizations and enterprises will bet their businesses on Office 365 is still a topic of great debate between those inside Microsoft and those on the outside, but there is one segment of users who are undoubtedly adopting Office 365 with great haste: those who traditionally fall into the small-to-midsize business (SMB) category.

SMBs Finally Get Easy Access to SharePoint

For SMB users, Office 365 represents an unprecedented opportunity to inexpensively obtain software and Microsoft-hosted services that are crucial for most day-to-day operations.

It’s not that SMB owners and users couldn't obtain Office 365’s services and software before the arrival of the Cloud-based offering. Pre-packaged software like Microsoft Office, for example, could be picked up easily with a quick trip to the local big box retailer. With the exception of Microsoft Office, though, the cost to obtain robust implementations of services like Exchange-based email were beyond the reach of many.

This was especially true for SharePoint. If an SMB that traditionally purchased Microsoft products wanted collaboration capabilities, for instance, they’d frequently have had to turn to a more cost-friendly offering like Google Apps.

Other barriers beyond cost also made it difficult for SMBs to adopt SharePoint. Licensing complexities were mind-boggling. Daily administration and upkeep for SharePoint required an ongoing investment in technical personnel. Upgrades to new versions of SharePoint were painful and required even more planning and investment. With Office 365, Microsoft assumes all of these responsibilities and leaves customers free to focus on making the most of SharePoint’s capabilities.

And there’s a lot of SharePoint “bang” to be had for Office 365 users. Specific capabilities vary by subscription plan, but all plans offer collaboration capabilities, external sharing, Office Web Applications (for browser-based viewing and editing of Office files like Word and Excel documents), powerful search, social features, mobile support, SkyDrive Pro (for cloud-based document storage and synchronization), a public website that can be accessed anonymously and quite a bit more. Premium and enterprise plans introduce additional features such as business intelligence capabilities and advanced records management functionality that tend to be of interest to larger organizations.

By making capabilities like these available at an attractive price point and assuming responsibility for their upkeep, it’s easy to understand why Microsoft (and much of the market) consider Office 365 to be a “no brainer” for SMBs.

SharePoint Evolution

Office 365 customers diving into SharePoint’s feature set may not be familiar with the platform’s past. When SharePoint first entered the market many moons ago, it was really only used for one thing: collaboration. SharePoint became very, very good at facilitating collaboration, and SharePoint’s successes in that arena helped to drive the platform’s adoption. As it grew in popularity with the enterprise organizations using it, however, SharePoint’s capabilities evolved to meet additional organizational needs that were important to its users.

The latest release of SharePoint, SharePoint 2013, still carries a very rich set of collaboration capabilities. Collaboration really is just the tip of the iceberg, though. SharePoint’s feature set today is probably far beyond what anyone originally envisioned for the platform when its “Tahoe” Server release candidate arrived at the beginning of 2001. These capabilities certainly weren’t added to SharePoint all at once, but rather in response to the needs and requests of the product’s user base.

Today’s SharePoint is very much the result of years’ worth of enterprise customer usage and input. Although enterprise users still represent the majority of SharePoint’s user base, it remains to be seen if things will remain this way. In just a short time, Office 365 and its growing base of non-enterprise users has demonstrated the potential to alter this dynamic.

The Effects of a Changing SharePoint User Demographic

I regularly speak with friends and co-workers in the SharePoint space, and invariably we end up talking shop along the way. We talk about projects that have excited us, implementations that have stressed us out and new features we've been exploring in the name of expanding our skill sets. When we end up talking about Office 365, though, I've noticed an interesting and somewhat contrasting trend: our conversation downsizes.

Instead of talking about the massive SharePoint migration that was just finished, I hear about how a friend helped his wife’s small company onto Office 365. Instead of big code projects, I hear about someone getting their family onto a SharePoint team site. And I have similar stories of my own to share about helping my wife and her co-worker get a public presence site up for a project, encouraging a friend to explore Office 365 for her single-person law practice, etc. The focus shifts from large-scale enterprise to SMB and the small-scale.

One of the first decisions I made when starting my own company a short time ago was to adopt Office 365 for my own business. Whenever I reflect upon my conversations and experiences with SharePoint, Office 365, and my own journey as a new business start-up, I become increasingly more convinced that Office 365 is going to alter the course of SharePoint’s development as a platform.

Although some overlap exists, the growing base of Office 365 SMB users are not the same as enterprise SharePoint users; they have different needs and some unique concerns. Even now, Microsoft has indicated that there are 18,000 personal SharePoint sites on Office 365 -- something previously unimaginable with “enterprise SharePoint.”

As the number of non-enterprise users continues to grow, so too does their collective voice. With the easy and cost-effective access to SharePoint that Office 365 provides, it is reasonable to expect that the unique needs of the expanding SMB user base will act to shape future releases of the SharePoint platform.

Will SharePoint remain a unified platform trying to serve individual, SMB and enterprise customers? Will Microsoft split or somehow alter SharePoint to better address the diversifying market base using it?

It is uncertain where the expanding non-enterprise user demographic may push SharePoint, but I have to admit that I am both anxious -- and excited -- to see how the platform evolves as a result.

Title image courtesy of tassel78 (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: Want another perspective on Office 365's impact on SharePoint? Read Andrew Connell's The Value & Future of SharePoint On Premises