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Microsoft MVP Talks SharePoint 2016, Deprecated InfoPath and Getting Help

Microsoft plans to improve usability aspects with its forthcoming SharePoint Server 2016 product, but people still will need help when it arrives.

And that's where Asif Rehmani comes into play. He's tracked SharePoint from the beginning as a lecturer, educator and trainer and is a nine-year Microsoft Most Valuable Professional for SharePoint. Rehmani is also an author of a couple of SharePoint books and other publications. He's part of VisualSP, a Plainfield, Ill.-based company that provides in-context help within SharePoint, as well as training videos and classes.

I talked with Rehmani last week about dealing with the complexity of SharePoint. We also discussed product deprecations coming with SharePoint Server 2016, such as InfoPath and other tools. What follows is an edited Q&A.

Q: What do people most want to accomplish using SharePoint?
Rehmani: Since I started out in the whole SharePoint community, since the beginning, one of the problems that still continues to be, unfortunately, a challenge, is user adoption for SharePoint. Companies bring it in for a variety of reasons. One big reason is a file share or a document repository -- for document sharing and collaboration. A second big reason is they want to have an intranet, and then, of course, document management goes into it as well. A third reason could be having a search appliance. SharePoint comes in at much more reasonable pricing when you do your search mechanism with SharePoint. So these are the three main portals that bring in interest in SharePoint at companies. There are others as well.

Is SharePoint a "black box" or multifunction kind of solution?
The problem is that many executives and others who look at this product say, "Hey, this is a Microsoft product. Our people know how to use Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Internet Explorer, so they'll figure out to use SharePoint as well." But SharePoint is a black box. It's extremely powerful software that is not very intuitive to use if you're a beginner. People can get disheartened pretty quickly, unfortunately, not knowing their way around the interfaces.

What help do you and VisualSP provide for SharePoint users?
I try to make SharePoint initiatives successful within companies -- that's been my personal motive and also our motivation as a company. You already have SharePoint or you're evaluating it, but will people use it, and if not, what's the point? That's what we do with our VisualSP Help Systems, which provide in-context, on-demand help directly to the user. The Microsoft SharePoint help system that comes out of the box does not do anything compared with that. You see things in SharePoint that you may not understand, such as a Document Library where you don't know how to check out a document or don't even know you need to check it out, or change metadata -- things like that. What we do is we provide a Help tab that goes right on the SharePoint Ribbon menu. Every time you press the Help tab it gives you artifacts, things like tutorials, screen shots, reference documents -- anything and everything that you need as a user to help you along the way, to help you understand everything you are looking at on the screen. That's the basic premise behind our VisualSP Help System.

Does VisualSP work with architectural aspects of SharePoint?
We do. We deal with all sorts of SharePoint "users" -- those who are responsible for the SharePoint architecture and development and maintenance throughout the organization. And we deal with power users and end users. So, the whole spectrum of the SharePoint users community are the target audience that I myself as an MVP for nine years now have been dealing with, plus our company also provides products and services that deal with the same categories as well. And, as you know, SharePoint is everywhere. Half of the Microsoft deployments out there I've heard are using SharePoint. So, if you're a Microsoft shop, it's very likely that you are using some form of SharePoint.

A recent talk by Microsoft described the next SharePoint as being more cloud enabled, and that many Office 365 service components (such as Delve and Groups) essentially are SharePoint. What's your sense about this idea?
Yeah, and that particular scenario has not changed since the on-prem scenario. The on-premises server was the first scenario introduced back in SharePoint 2001. It's still there and alive and well. SharePoint on premises is not dead, and it will continue to be alive and thrive for at least a few more years, if not for a long time. Microsoft has committed to on-premises customers of SharePoint, so they're not going away from it. Having said that, since the beginning, SharePoint has served as a very solid platform to build solutions on top of. Microsoft has done that in its own cloud, and Microsoft's cloud answer is Azure. Microsoft is building experiences for customers using those Azure components, such as Delve, Groups and Clutter. The good thing about this is these Office 365 services will be continue to be updated for the IT guy. There have been some hiccups, but overall Microsoft has been going in the right direction, I believe. Iterations are much faster in the cloud than on prem, but, having said that, on-prem SharePoint is extremely important. Many of our customers currently around the world are saying that cloud is not the answer for us now. And it might never be because of regulations and country restrictions.

Microsoft has said that if something isn't available in SharePoint Server 2016, it'll be available from its cloud-based services. But is there a tension there for organizations?
You never know. Lots of organizations are very dependent on the on-prem solution and they can't go to the cloud. I don't believe Microsoft will leave them high and dry.

What about the product deprecations associated with SharePoint Server 2016, such as InfoPath?
InfoPath was never built for SharePoint to begin with -- that's the fact that many people miss. It was retrofitted to support SharePoint so that forms solutions could be used on SharePoint. There are limitations inside InfoPath that could not have grown with the SharePoint trajectory. Because of that, Microsoft turned to researching a Web-based solution for the design and creation of forms in SharePoint or somewhere online instead of doing it on a desktop, which InfoPath does. Microsoft has not come out officially with something yet, but I can almost guarantee that it will happen, and that will be a good solution. It might not have the exact same functionality as InfoPath, but it will be a really good start, which will help many case scenarios. The guidance [from Microsoft] is that InfoPath will still be supported eight years from now, which is a long time in terms of software technology.

Do you have any recommendations for InfoPath alternatives from third-party providers?
The major players, the ones that I usually name, are Nintex, AgilePoint, K2 and Formotus, but there might be ones that are even better but I haven't looked at their solutions. It comes down to a pricing issue. How far do you want to take a solution and become dependent on a vendor? Another option, of course, is to wait and see if Microsoft comes out with an alternative, which they will, except that nobody knows the timing when it's going to be in production.

During an Ignite talk, you mentioned that Microsoft Access is a way to create forms in SharePoint -- can that be used?
You can. It has limited scenarios, though. The use cases are not as broad as InfoPath. I would say it's about 20 percent of what InfoPath can do, maybe even less. You could do some things fairly well in Access. Access services is not there yet to take over InfoPath's place yet, and it might never be. Access is a good solution for some scenarios but definitely not all, and it's definitely not a substitute for InfoPath.

Microsoft is going to deprecate SharePoint Designer, too, which I understand is used to build sites. What are the options there?
Right now, the current evolution of SharePoint Designer is not really much for managing Sites; it's much more for managing and designing Workflows. That's the main purpose, currently. You could manage Sites with it, but it doesn't give you that many options any more. It did used to do more in SharePoint 2010; in SharePoint 2013 it's less. SharePoint Designer comes from FrontPage, and FrontPage was bought by Microsoft in 1996 and it was never meant for SharePoint. It was retrofitted with SharePoint in it, and then SharePoint Designer was born as fork off FrontPage. So, going away from it was a logical solution. Specifically, people are worried about how to manage their Workflows. Microsoft's answer is that SharePoint Designer 2013 will work with SharePoint Server 2016, just like InfoPath 2013 will work with SharePoint Server 2016.

What is a SharePoint Workflow and why do you need to manage it?
A Workflow is any kind of automation that you want to create within SharePoint -- as an example, "alert this department when a new request comes in on a particular List." It's an alert, plus e-mail, when an event has taken place. Or something like when a document gets put into this library, "go ahead and make a copy of it and put it into this other library and go and notify these people here." Anything that's related to Sites, Lists and Libraries, and automating all of those things, plus keeping people in touch through automation -- all of that stuff is a Workflow for SharePoint.

Any other impressions to share about SharePoint 2016?
The main thing about SharePoint 2016 is all of these experiences Microsoft is creating underneath it. There's not a huge different in the interface. It's very much about how it would work with cloud services and the other model that we're seeing with Office 365. What people want to know is how do SharePoint Server 2013 and SharePoint Server 2016 differ, and what are the scenarios around Forms and Workflows -- those things aren't in the public domain now, to my knowledge. I'm hoping in a few months that'll become public.

Will there be a VisualSP Help System for SharePoint Server 2016?
We will have one for SharePoint 2016, but the current focus in on SharePoint 2013 and SharePoint 2010 and on top of that Office 365. In addition to the users' help, if administrators, developers and designers need help, such as how to make a form with InfoPath, how do I make a Workflow, or how do I make a dashboard, we have hundreds and hundreds of tutorials for those things at our site, VisualSP.com, also known as SharePoint-Videos.com.

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