In-Depth

What To Expect in SharePoint 2013

A new version of the Microsoft collaboration and enterprise content management platform is in the works, and it will offer improved social networking, client and mobile UI enhancements, an app marketplace, and better cloud support. And that just scratches the surface.

Editor's Note: When this article was written, SharePoint 2013 was still being referred to by the "SharePoint 15" code name.

It's no surprise that Microsoft SharePoint is among the most widely deployed platforms for enterprise collaboration, with more than 125 million licenses sold to more than 65,000 enterprise customers. Right now, though, the mystery is all about what to expect from the next major release -- and that's rapidly starting to unravel. Microsoft recently released the first technology preview of the forthcoming upgrade, code-named "SharePoint 15," to selected testers, and the company is gunning for a general beta release this summer. And while Microsoft isn't saying, observers are betting on a commercial release by year's end or in early 2013.

The current product, SharePoint 2010, is now 2 years old. Microsoft says 65 million users, or more than half of the installed base, are on SharePoint 2010. It represents an improvement over the previous SharePoint 2007 product, yet the 2010 version is already showing its age. Among its shortcomings, critics complain that SharePoint 2010 has only rudimentary social-networking features, weak support for mobile clients such as smartphones and tablets, and requires substantial development for custom apps. Moreover, despite having significant advances in business intelligence (BI), SharePoint 2010 can still use improved integration with back-end systems.

Experts say Microsoft will address many of those concerns with SharePoint 15. Anything can change between the technology preview and the final release, but the planned improvements are already getting some air. SharePoint 15 is expected to be better suited for cloud environments, coinciding with a major upgrade to the SharePoint component of the cloud-based Microsoft Office 365. Microsoft is said to be planning a new SharePoint app marketplace and spruced-up interfaces suited for social networking. Improved mobile support and simplified development and integration reportedly are part of the planning process. Microsoft released the technology preview in late January, with the select evaluators bound by nondisclosure agreements. Still, some details are starting to emerge.

Redmond talked to various SharePoint experts who described what they're expecting to see in SharePoint 15, as well as what they'd like to see based on the current product.

Surrounding the technology preview, Microsoft released two key documents: the SharePoint 2013 Technical Preview Software Development Kit (SDK) and the Office 15 Technical Preview Open Specification Update. Both provide rich technical documentation on what's new in SharePoint 15, notes Bjørn Furuknap, a senior SharePoint solutions architect, founder of training organization USPJ Academy and author of a series of ongoing detailed technical reports on the new SharePoint release.

Among some findings Furuknap has recently revealed, the next SharePoint will:

  • Include an overhauled Client Object Model (COM), "making it easier for UI designers and front-end developers to build compelling visual interfaces."
  • Support a new app marketplace that will create an ecosystem for multitenant apps.
  • Feature a version for education and training called SharePoint Education.
  • Enable workflow looping in SharePoint Designer, eliminating the need for the Visual Studio development environment for that function.
  • Provide authentication via OAuth 2.0, an open standard that provides cross-platform authentication.
  • Offer added information rights management in SharePoint Foundation.

One thing Microsoft is officially saying: SharePoint 15 will tie closely with the release of the next version of Office, code-named "Office 15," and with a planned upgrade to Office 365. The cloud-based Microsoft Office 365 service offers online versions of SharePoint, Exchange and Lync, but the Office Professional Plus option is strictly installed on-premises at this time.

Microsoft appears to have larger plans in mind, though.

Making SharePoint More Social
Microsoft introduced social networking to SharePoint in the 2010 release, with a new homepage in the My Site portal that lets users discover information from others with matching interests and projects in play. Users can bookmark, tag and rate content, making it accessible to those on a team. Activity feeds allow consolidated views of what a user is tracking as well as content published. Wikis also made their debut in SharePoint 2010.

"SharePoint has some social capabilities with the My Sites and Team Sites, but there's no true social-networking platform where it's close to being a Facebook for the enterprise."

Eric Winton, Managing Director and Technology Consultant, Slalom Consulting

Nevertheless, those wanting to use advanced social-networking features typically turn to the likes of NewsGator Technologies Inc., Jive Software Inc. and Yammer, to name a few. Even rival platforms such as Chatter from Salesforce.com Inc. and Connections from IBM Corp. are said to offer richer enterprise social networking than the base social-networking features in SharePoint 2010. "Some of these things were haphazardly implemented [in SharePoint 2010], like the status updates," says Richard Harbridge, an analyst at Allin Consulting, a Pittsburgh-based SharePoint advisory firm.

"SharePoint has some social capabilities with the My Sites and Team Sites, but there's no true social-networking platform where it's close to being a Facebook for the enterprise," says Eric Winton, a managing director and technology consultant at Slalom Consulting. "We're hearing a lot of companies asking for that; they want that social experience inside the four walls of their companies. When new employees walk into a company they expect to be able to have that. They need to be able to come in and do true social networking and microblogging. A lot of it is the way they communicate."

While Microsoft isn't commenting on any of the reported new features in SharePoint 15, a spokeswoman for the company acknowledges: "Social will continue to be an area of significant investment for SharePoint." Validating that point, Jared Spataro, senior director of SharePoint product management at Microsoft, last month outlined the results of a study the company commissioned that found 77 percent of IT decision makers believe information sharing is the main reason they need to implement enterprise social networking within their organization.

The early consensus is that SharePoint 15 will take on more features commonly found in Facebook and Twitter. "The reality is, everyone's perception of what social should be is being framed by Facebook and Twitter," says Jeff DeVerter, a SharePoint architect at Rackspace US Inc. "And so Microsoft right now is very much leaning on their partner community to fill that gap, that threshold of what folks are expecting. As far as what's coming in SharePoint 15, I think there's some interesting stuff coming."

Others are in agreement. "I would expect to see some amount of attention to social. There are some shortcomings in social and I think they've been pretty clear they want to close that gap," says Forrester Research Inc. analyst Rob Koplowitz.

Parity in the Cloud
It's expected that the future release of SharePoint 15 and its correspondingly upgraded SharePoint Online component in Office 365 will have greater fidelity in terms of functionality than the current releases do. Today, there are disparities between how organizations can use SharePoint 2010 and SharePoint Online.

For example, the BI features in Office 365 are limited compared with SharePoint 2010. Likewise, Office 365 is not optimized today for custom code or third-party apps.

However, the lines likely will blur between the cloud and on-premises versions of SharePoint.

"There's some functionality not available in Office 365 that is available on-premises, but you'll see that completely diminish," says Harbridge. "Microsoft has made it very public; that's their intention."

Indeed, Microsoft is now saying that the next version of SharePoint will be cloud-first, but the company is not elaborating. Some are predicting that Microsoft will aim at adding new features to SharePoint Online first before updating the on-premises versions. "Whether it's through the application marketplace or something else, you'll see features that were in development and didn't quite make the cut but that they'll roll out more iteratively on Office 365 with less of an impact or concern to users," Harbridge says.

"I expect there to be significant investment in SharePoint as a multitenant cloud offering first, and then on-premises after that," says Forrester's Koplowitz.

But some argue that Office 365 has a long way to go before it reaches that point. Shane Young, a Microsoft SharePoint MVP and founder of SharePoint911, which was acquired by Rackspace in February, is among those who see SharePoint Online in Office 365 as inferior to SharePoint 2010.

"It gets you that core collaboration functionality, but we've got a lot of people standing up public Web sites on SharePoint [2010]. We've got people who want to do business intelligence solutions on SharePoint. But right now, today, if you want to do anything more than straight-up collaboration, it's a challenge in Office 365," Young says.

Nevertheless, there are a growing number of customers who want to use SharePoint but don't want to store large amounts of content on-premises. Slalom's Winton recalls a recent encounter with a very large client that was looking at migrating from an existing SharePoint environment to the cloud. "He said, 'I want to get out of the storage business altogether,'" Winton says, adding: "There's a lot of interest from clients in moving to the cloud. It started with e-mail a few years ago, and now major companies are adopting e-mail in the cloud, and now you're going to see more document management in the cloud."

"The reality is, everyone's perception of what social should be is being framed by Facebook and Twitter. And so Microsoft right now is very much leaning on their partner community to fill that gap."

Jeff DeVerter, SharePoint Architect, Rackspace US Inc.

The SharePoint Apps Marketplace
While there's a marketplace for SharePoint applications via Office.com, the app store that hosts downloadable site templates is not widely used, notes Furuknap. That's because the current app store supports only sandbox solutions, which are constrained from using all of SharePoint's functionality.

Another limitation is the lack of licensing provisions, Furuknap notes. "Naturally, this is a deal-breaker for many vendors as they're likely not going to want to give away their software without any license control," he writes. "The new app store, which Microsoft calls the Marketplace, solves all of these issues and looks very promising as a new way of getting and distributing applications both for users and developers."

Furuknap explains that a new application model in SharePoint 15 is based on new classes such as SPApp and SPAppCatalog. "The preliminary functionality seems to focus on deployment of functionality as packages, as well as management of security, licensing, functionality and custom databases," he says.

Bring on Multitenant Apps
One of the notable improvements when SharePoint 2010 came out two years ago was its support for multitenancy. This was important for those who wanted to run SharePoint in the cloud or at a hosting facility where it might support more than one customer, or in an enterprise where different groups were sharing a common server. SharePoint 15 will take that a step further, allowing support for a new breed of multitenant applications.

This new multitenancy capability will make SharePoint apps sold through the marketplace available to multiple customers or groups within an enterprise running on a multi-tenant host or cloud service. "I believe that app management will support regular farm solutions, which is great news in terms of functionality because it allows far more features than sandbox solutions allow," notes Furuknap.

Harbridge says this improved multitenant support will be welcome by customers that consume large numbers of apps. "It's meant to improve the dynamic of being able to easily deploy and manage apps in the SharePoint environment," he says.

The New UI
Speaking at last fall's SharePoint Conference in Anaheim, Calif., Microsoft SharePoint exec Spataro said the company has increased the number of UI designers on the SharePoint team by a factor of four, an investment that did not go unnoticed by stakeholders.

"I think user experience is going to be very important," says Wahid Saleemi, a senior SharePoint consultant at Avanade Inc. "It's still difficult for someone to learn to use more of the advanced features of SharePoint -- setting up versioning, setting up workflows." Saleemi also wants to see better integration with Office. While it's already vastly improved in SharePoint 2010, he'd like to see better synchronization with Outlook and support for Access.

"What I'd like to see is people using SharePoint without knowing they're using SharePoint, where they're just using the applications they're used to -- Word, Excel, Access and primarily Outlook. Why should someone have to go to a Web page to look at a calendar when their calendar app is Outlook?" Saleemi asks. "That's possible today in 2010, with a little bit of tweaking, but hopefully that's much easier."

Mobile Tune-Up
In addition, Allin Consulting's Harbridge expects to see improved fidelity among browsers and mobile devices. There's widespread agreement that Microsoft needs to provide better support for mobile clients.

"Mobile support in SharePoint 2010 is pretty weak," says Saleemi of Avanade. "We often do get requirements that say the platform must support mobile devices. Well, SharePoint out of the box does, but it's really limited."

For example, he says users can view lists and documents on mobile devices, but some data doesn't render. Workflows don't work properly, nor do many of the BI features, particularly when trying to render graphs and charts, he adds. In most cases, when a company has a strong requirement for mobile, they end up using a third-party tool, such as SharePlus from Infragistics Inc. or Mobolize for SharePoint from Mobolize Inc.

SharePoint 15 will boast many other new features. It can be expected that it will offer improved integration with Lync, notably the ability to detect presence from SharePoint apps. Integration with the newly released SQL Server 2012 is anticipated, offering more tightly integrated BI and reporting services via the new Excel Power View and PowerPivot charting capabilities, and simplified workflow capabilities via the ability to more simply create loops. Of course, this only scratches the surface. With the coming of Windows 8 and Windows Server 8, more can be expected on how SharePoint 15 will leverage those environments, which use the new Metro-style UI.

SharePoint 15 is only at the technology preview stage, with months to go before this summer's beta and even more before the final product release. Much can change, but a picture is emerging about where SharePoint is headed. It will be more social, have an improved UI and integrate more tightly with other applications and the cloud.

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