If you've visited the Microsoft website lately, you might be wondering what happened to SharePoint. It hasn't disappeared altogether, but it's certainly harder to find. Is this somehow related to Microsoft’s recent reiteration of its "device and services" strategy? I think it is.

Where's SharePoint?

In a July memo to employees, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer re-emphasized the importance of social collaboration in Microsoft’s future. He said:

Social communications are time-intensive, high-value scenarios that are ripe for digital re-imagination. Such innovation will include new ways to participate in work meetings... We can reimagine email and other communication vehicles as the lines between these vehicles grow fuzzy, and the amount of people’s digital or digitally assisted interaction continues to grow. We can create new ways to interact through hardware, software and new services. Next-gen documents and expression are an important part of online social communications.”

From Ballmer’s memo, it is clear that social communication is more important to Microsoft than before. And since many of the enabling technologies mentioned by Ballmer were traditionally delivered by SharePoint and email, it’s clear that SharePoint is not going anywhere soon. So what’s going on?

What’s happening is that SharePoint is experiencing a metamorphosis as it evolves into an integral element of Microsoft’s cloud collaboration platform. How so?

Take a look at the Office 365 Enterprise website. The site details the components of the Office 365 Enterprise offering, including the following:

  • Office applications (Word, Excel, Powerpoint, One Note, Access, Project, Info Path, etc.),
  • Email and calendaring (Exchange)
  • Instant messaging, unified communications, and webconferencing (Lync)
  • Mobile access to applications (Office Web Apps)

Where’s SharePoint? Isn't it part of Office 365? Now look again. It’s there alright, because Office 365 also includes:

  • File storage and sharing, and
  • Team Sites

But “File storage and sharing” is listed under SkyDrive Pro and “Team Sites” appears simply as an Office 365 feature. SharePoint, per se, is mentioned only within the context of unified data e-Discovery, administration and accessing data via mobile devices. What’s happening?

It’s simple. The ability to share documents within the context of social collaboration is no longer a product; rather it has become a single component within a grander enterprise collaboration experience.

This was corroborated by a recent Microsoft survey of almost 10,000 enterprise workers from 32 countries that identified the top two uses of enterprise social tools as “communicating with colleagues (by 68% of respondents)” and “sharing documents (by 50% of respondents)”.

Sharing documents (SharePoint) and communicating with colleagues (Exchange, Lync, Yammer) are no longer standalone capabilities. Working together with colleagues means reaching out to them using the most convenient collaboration modality for the situation. This could be email, instant messaging, discussion boards, document sharing, telephone, videoconferencing … whatever. All of these capabilities are just components of a broader collaboration experience, and they should be viewed as such. And that is why SharePoint is disappearing and becoming more strategic for Microsoft … at the same time.

Is Office 365 Ready For Prime Time?

With Office 365, Microsoft presents a grand vision for social collaboration. In practice, the offering is not yet complete. Presently, there are three gaping holes in Microsoft’s ability to deliver on the social collaboration vision; mobile access, Yammer integration and a consistent user experience across all devices and services. Let’s look at each one in turn.

Mobile access

When Microsoft says it is focusing on “devices and services,” it means providing complete services on a host of Microsoft devices. Largely, this leaves hundreds of millions of iOS, Android and BlackBerry users out in the cold. This is intentional. During a recent interview on CNBC Bill Gates specifically stated that

With Windows 8, Microsoft is trying to gain share in what has been dominated by the iPad-type device. But a lot of those users are frustrated, they can't type, they can't create documents. They don't have Office there.”

Providing the best Office experience on Microsoft mobile devices is the sharpest arrow in Microsoft’s mobile quiver, so delivering full-featured Office for the iPad or Android does not make sense from their perspective. In fact, the day a full-featured Office suite appears on the iPad and Android is the day I believe you can bury the Surface.

Yammer integration

Last year’s purchase of Yammer was a great strategic bet for Microsoft. Yammer is a superb social collaboration tool, and the Yammer team’s approach to delivering innovation is a sorely needed addition to Microsoft. Yet one year into the acquisition, the integration of Yammer and Office 365 still has a long way to go.

While Microsoft is making important strides such as unifying Office 365 and Yammer user identities, several key issues remain unanswered. First, Yammer and SharePoint are not deeply integrated at the user interface level, so reaching out to colleagues still requires hopping from application to application. Secondly, it is still not yet clear how on-premises SharePoint customers should react -- should they invest in SharePoint Social or shift to Yammer? And organizations not ready to embrace the cloud are not able to use Yammer, so the future for them is even more unclear.

For some insights into where this is headed, check out this recent Microsoft white paper on integrating Yammer into on-premises SharePoint 2013 environments, this recent post on the SharePoint Blog, and this post on the Official Microsoft Blog.

Unified user experience

As the number of devices used by workers increases, providing a consistent user experience will become even more critical to realize employee productivity -- because having to learn a new app for each device is a recipe for failure. That’s why Microsoft’s insistence on using only Microsoft devices falls flat for two reasons.

First, the mobile game is over. There are far too many iPads, IPhones and Android devices out there to ignore. Most people aren’t going to the throw them away for Microsoft’s Surface. And while Microsoft has provided some basic apps for the iPhone, these are limited apps that fall far short of user expectations; in fact, the latest Office 365 app for the iPhone has been roundly panned by the user community. David Pogue from the New York Times, for one labelled this “extremely stripped down” Office App for the iPhone an “anti-climax.”

Second, Office 365 applications themselves are only partially integrated with each other. For example, email and (SharePoint) file storage still use two completely different file repository systems. And the recent attempt to bridge this, called “Site Mailbox” shows just how far Microsoft still has to go ....

Conclusion: SharePoint Is Dead, Long Live Office 365

As Microsoft shifts to the cloud, “SharePoint” as a standalone product will wane, just as its functionality becomes increasingly critical to Office 365 and Microsoft’s new “device and service” strategy.

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.

Over time, Microsoft will plug the Yammer integration hole and perhaps the user experience hole, but as long as it stands by its current “devices and services” strategies, folks would be well-advised to find alternative Office 365 and SharePoint apps for the iPad and Android devices. Alternatively, you can swap out all your employees devices with the Surface … It’s up to you.

Title image courtesy of mimagephotography (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: To read more by David, see his The Changing Role of IT in a Technology World Full of Choice