Social Business, Reports of SharePoint's Death are Greatly ExaggeratedSharePoint's got a few good years in it yet.

Like many people who care about SharePoint, I’m a big fan of the value that social networking brings in all walks of life, both inside and outside the firewall, in business and in my personal life as well. When online social networks allow me to bridge those different aspects of my life, I’m always amazed -- and yes, it does happen. For every oddly amusing Facebook conversation in which someone’s insisted to me that the Dave Matthews Band is somehow superior to the Beatles (hint: they’re not), there’s been a chance to exchange thoughts and ideas with legitimately brilliant and educated people on any number of topics.

Happily, the future of SharePoint is one of those topics.

I’m lucky enough to be connected to a great deal of former colleagues who have at least one thing in common: SharePoint. It’s no surprise, then, that one of them hosted a rollicking discussion on that product’s future a month or so back. The ad hoc “panelists” included a number of senior consulting architects, several current and ex-Softies, a former SharePoint MVP, and at least one well-regarded architect from a leading SharePoint ISV (that’s Microsoft slang for “Independent Software Vendor”).

Opinions varied, but the one thing on which we could all agree is that SharePoint is evolving. How, and into what? Well, that’s where the variance comes in.

We can all indulge in idle speculation until we’re blue in the face, and let’s face it -- we’ll still be wrong. In this century, unexpected and amazing things happen every day. Led Zeppelin have gone back out on tour. Superman wears his underwear on the inside, now. Star Wars VII is more than just a pipe dream. In a world where those things are true, it’s easy for even the most considered argument to be proven way off base in just a few weeks -- so all of the following comes with a very big caveat.

I’m a big fan of context, so let’s establish some with three key points about what we know today. We’ll follow that up with three predictions for tomorrow. Some of those predictions will be wrong. Some of them will probably upset people who are closely tied to what SharePoint is (as opposed to what it can become). I can promise that all of them will be grounded in solid premises and hypotheses, though, so let’s polish up our crystal balls ….

The Present: What we know today

It’s all about the cloud. Office 365 is the product Microsoft is selling not just to the enterprise but to consumers. It’s on your Microsoft field rep’s quota, and it’s on the rack in your big box store (we’ll come back to this second point in a bit). Ignore it at your peril -- from any number of perspectives.

From a purely architectural perspective, it’s already everything. SharePoint 2013’s app model has been famously revamped to focus on client side development, not the more familiar server side path. This made SharePoint more cloud friendly, whether on-premises or actually online, putting the weight of customization at the level of the page and the browser, not on the server in the data center. This isn’t changing any time soon. Microsoft anticipates SharePoint becoming a major online workload in their own data centers.

How often do you hear “Office 365”? A lot. Comparatively speaking, outside the so-called SharePoint Community (which obviously has a vested interest in preserving the nomenclature), we hear the term “Office 365” a great deal more from Microsoft than we ever hear “SharePoint Online.”

As noted above, the Office name and brand has merged more or less seamlessly into Office 365. This has implications for SharePoint that die-hard SharePoint fanboys won’t want to hear. In the Office 365 world, SharePoint Online is just one aspect of a pretty powerful business productivity platform.

SharePoint, meanwhile, has a decidedly mixed reputation as a brand in the marketplace (where it’s heard of at all). We all know of places where SharePoint has … if not exactly failed, then at least not taken off. Meanwhile, back at the Hall of Justice, most everyone knows what Microsoft Office is, but SharePoint doesn’t have that kind of name recognition. This matters. Why? Read on.

Microsoft says they’re a “Devices and Services” company now. Windows Phone is slowly gaining market share. The Surface was a valiant first salvo that’s more powerful for what it represents than for what it’s actually accomplished. Xbox remains a dominant gaming console with a network of millions of captive users. Meanwhile, services like Office 365 and Yammer align perfectly with Microsoft’s stated path forward.

A product that as recently as last year still retained the word “server” in its official name? Not so much. Oh, SharePoint won’t be going away … but it’s a good bet that it will change in ways that people won’t be expecting if they’re not trying to read the proverbial tea leaves.

The Future: What can we project?

SharePoint as a product may not be going away, but it is transforming more fully into a platform. Now, let’s think about “devices and services.” The services we associate with SharePoint are already tied just as closely into other products as they are into SharePoint itself. In fact, in many things, the services we associate with SharePoint could be decoupled from it entirely and only the 10,000 or so people attending SharePoint Conference 2014 would notice. Don’t believe me? Let’s take a look.

The Office Backstage Panel already provides end users with all of this:

  • Document sharing (Save and Send)
  • Application of metadata
  • Governance (security and permissions)
  • Asynchronous collaboration (versioning and library services)
  • Synchronous collaboration (Co-authoring) in a browser at that (web apps)!

Tell me that doesn’t sound familiar. While we’re at it, let’s also consider that Yammer has now as good as replaced the much-ballyhooed major improvement of SharePoint 2013, the social newsfeed, and supplemented the other two major investments (“Cloud” and “Mobile”) of that last major release in a rather major way.

Yammer additionally provides a (potentially superior) way to tie in data from line of business applications and get it into your end users’ hands, another key function of the old SharePoint portal. And lest we forget, there’s that possibly apocryphal story that the SharePoint Social team in Redmond calls itself “Yammer North” now.

The upshot of all of this is that SharePoint is now a platform serving up these services (and admittedly others) to end users. Microsoft could continue providing the services while doing away with the brand tomorrow and not miss a beat. I don’t think they will -- it’s a billion dollar business, after all -- but the point is that they could.

The concept of “SharePoint for end users” will go away, because end users will interface with SharePoint via Office (365 or no) or mobile apps as much as they do via browser. And speaking of the browser, what you see there can be heavily customized and made responsive. Microsoft itself has made this easier than ever in 2013, and things like device channels and variations barely scratch the surface of what’s possible. If SharePoint provides the services to all those devices … well, it’s basically a platform (again) for admins to maintain and developers to improve, but decidedly not a product aimed at end-user consumers.

Look, it’s great that there’s so much help out there for end users struggling with SharePoint usability. Large and thriving websites, communities and consultancies have been built around this problem. But does anyone really believe that Microsoft enjoys or appreciates the fact that a billion-dollar business has inspired so much thought and activity around its weaknesses? If they can get people to happily use SharePoint (and more importantly, purchase licenses) without ever consuming it in its native environment, you’d better believe they will. And why not? It’s good business. Just look at SQL. And speaking of everybody’s favorite database server ….

Non-collaborative SharePoint Internet sites will become a curiosity. If you put any faith in the above predictions to hold water, then you accept that internal use cases for SharePoint will remain strong. Intranets, basic collaboration, document management and soon social business have been and will be the platform’s bread and butter.

External use cases, though, will be focused more and more on collaborative extranets that require user authentication for identity’s sake. SharePoint-based public sites will be replaced by Sitecore, and that will happen sooner than later. Sitecore is by and large a better platform for the all-important Digital Marketing workload and from a purely pragmatic perspective, it drives more net new SQL licensing revenue for Microsoft.

Even today, the scenarios where SharePoint makes sense as a web content platform -- while very real and very much alive -- are becoming less common. This is in part an outgrowth of the cloud-first direction of the platform. To base your internet site on SharePoint, you need a solid investment in both SharePoint infrastructure and the workforce to maintain and improve (i.e., develop on) it.

As SharePoint work moves more and more to the cloud, organizations will begin to invest in other resources and career paths for their employees. The primary reason to build an internet site on SharePoint -- we own, understand and can easily maintain it -- will shift over time.

Even the Galactic Emperor was (Famously) Wrong Once in a While

Now, don’t go running out and betting the farm on any of the above. Even grounded in logic, I admit it’s still just idle speculation. I don’t have the ability to see into the future (although I can still bet against the Chicago Bears and do pretty well every time) and I don’t have any moles in Redmond. I’ve even been wrong before, as in very recently.

Even the most reasonable of the above conclusions are still a year or three off, at least. That’s a lot of time, and a lot can happen between now and then. We’ve painted one possible future for SharePoint, though, and it’s pretty rosy even if Microsoft takes it to its logical conclusion and subsumes SharePoint entirely into Office and Yammer (I don’t see that happening).

What I also don’t see happening is this ubiquitous platform losing significant market share. It’s just too big, too common, too capable in so many ways and too rewarding for so many people who care so much about it. So yeah, the SharePoint we knew may be dead -- but long live SharePoint!

It’s got a lot of great living ahead of it.

Title image courtesy of Shutter_M (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: Be sure to read Rich's thoughts on the state of mobility in SharePoint in The SharePoint Mobility Forecast: Outlook Cloudy