Unlike the continual release model of its cloud based competitors, Microsoft releases a major version of SharePoint every three years. There are some downsides to this approach (see later in this article), but one definite upside is that when the releases do come around, those of us who work with SharePoint every day tend to get a bit excited. (As in, excited like first graders at a raspberry cordial party.)

So it was with much anticipation that I took a close look at the recently released SharePoint 2013 Preview. My initial take is that this is a significant release with a ton of great new features to talk about. However, for this article I wanted to identify the seven new features that I think SharePoint users are going to love the most.

1. My Documents -- My "SkyDrive for Work"

The idea of storing personal documents in My Sites, rather than local drives, has always made sense to me: I can access my files from multiple devices as well as easily share files with teammates using links, rather than sending copies via email. Using a My Site for storing my documents also ensures that files are in a managed environment, rather than residing on intrinsically fallible local hard drives.

Despite these potential advantages, the My Site documents experience in SharePoint 2010 is clunky, overly reliant on constant availability and, more often that not, is not used.

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The good news is that in SharePoint 2013 saving documents into My Sites is going to get a lot easier. In fact, it is the default location for saving documents from Office 2013. There is a single document library, not two as in SharePoint 2010, and the permissions have been simplified, making it a cinch to share documents with colleagues.

Better still, the My Site document library can be synced with a local drive to enable offline access so you can access your documents even when the server is unavailable. With this capability SharePoint 2013 My Documents can mount a strong case to be your "SkyDrive for Work."

2. App Store

In an interesting move that will at one stroke empower end users, reduce load on overworked IT operations departments and add fuel to the already active after-market for SharePoint add-ons, Microsoft is introducing an Apps Store model with SharePoint 2013. Initial app offerings are already being promoted by Microsoft. Site owners used to being turned down by IT or having to endure extended waits when seeking new capabilities will love the new-found independence the Apps store promises.

3. Social Enterprise

Perhaps the most exciting changes in SharePoint 2013 relate to social capabilities. The list of new features is extensive: micro blogs, activity feeds, community sites, Following, Likes and Reputations are the standouts.

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Of these I really like Following, which adds the ability to "follow" people, sites, documents and topics, with subsequent actions of the followed entity appearing in the user's activity stream. Keeping up to date with the activities of colleagues in SharePoint has never been easier.

As an aside, it is worth noting that the social tools market is white hot and feature advances are coming fast and furious. In this environment, Microsoft's three year product release cycle seems like an anachronism, leaving it constantly lagging behind its competitors.

The social features announced in this SharePoint 2013 preview -- though representing the arrival of SharePoint a s a legitimate social platform contender -- are nevertheless behind the state of the market today and this gap will only get wider by the time SharePoint 2013 is released to the market. This gap won’t matter to organizations that are committed to the SharePoint platform who will tolerate feature shortcomings in exchange for tight integration of "good enough" social capabilities into SharePoint.

4. Mobility

Clearly recognizing the massive rise in use of mobile smart devices, Microsoft has done some nice work to make it easier to access SharePoint content from a mobile device. Adding to the existing classic view, SharePoint 2013 offers two new views for mobile devices, including a contemporary view for optimized mobile browser experience and a full-screen view which enables the user to have a full desktop view of a SharePoint site on a smartphone device. These new views will be well received by smartphone users, as the existing experience, using mobile apps or the browser, is a little ordinary.

5. Site Permissions

A key selling point of SharePoint is the ability to have a distributed governance model, pushing the management of sites out to the business units. In practice though, the processes of granting or requesting access to a site in SharePoint 2010 are overly complex and a major source of confusion for site owners.

With SharePoint 2013 site owners are going to love the new, simplified sharing-based model for site permissions management. For IT help desk staff, used to spending a disproportionate amount of their time sorting out permission issues, this should come as a welcome relief.

6. Themes

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The ability to have some control over the visual styling of a site is important to site owners. Everybody would like to have a site that looks great! SharePoint 2010 standard styling options are a little on the dull side. SharePoint 2013 will bring richer themes and even the ability to add a background image to the page. I have to say that the early screen shots look pretty good.

7. Metro

Last, in this super 7 list is Metro, the Microsoft’s big user interface bet that’s easier to use, snazzy and well, different (in a good way). While there appears to be some uncertainty over the ongoing use of the name "Metro" to describe its new, radical UI design, there is no doubt that the concept itself will be around for a while -- Microsoft are planning to use Metro as the default UI for SharePoint as well as user tools like Office, Windows, Xbox and mobile devices.

Editor's Note: This is the first article by new contributor Andrew Bishop. To read more of his thoughts on SharePoint, you might want to read this Discussion Point:

-- Discussion Point: SharePoint 2013 is a Serious WCM Contender