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Microsoft Explains SharePoint Branding and Rolls Out New Framework

By Kurt Mackie

Microsoft announced some news earlier this month of concern to IT pros that maintain SharePoint Online intranets, including the nuances of adding "branding" to sites.

The branding issue was addressed in a helpful Microsoft Tech Community post by Bob German, a partner technical architect at Microsoft. He outlined branding differences between so-called "classic" SharePoint sites with customizations, which use added code, and SharePoint Online sites that use the so-called "modern" user interface (UI) that have support from SharePoint Framework extensions.

The good news for "classic" SharePoint users is that Microsoft isn't making many code changes to it. It's putting most of its efforts behind SharePoint Online and the modern UI instead. Having fewer classic code changes means that customizations are less likely to break for organizations when SharePoint Online gets updated. However, the down side to it is that classic SharePoint users won't be getting the advantages brought by Microsoft's latest modern software improvements.

Get Smart About Branding
SharePoint branding appears to be the perpetual bane of IT pros, even though most organizations see a need for it, and having branding on sites can help drive the internal use of SharePoint in organizations. Because SharePoint intranets can break with customizations, some organizations have learned to "never customize SharePoint."

However, German took the view that "it's worth figuring out how to be smart about customizing SharePoint rather than running away in fear." He suggested that there are ways for organizations to stay within Microsoft's customization "guardrails."

It's far clearer what can and cannot be customized with SharePoint Online modern Communication Sites. The header, Web Parts and footer can all be freely customized. By "customization," German means the ability to add code to a site. It's also possible to "configure" SharePoint sites, which German defined as "changing SharePoint's behavior or rendering using settings and content."

Branding options for modern SharePoint sites appears to be an overall work in progress for Microsoft. Its documentation on the topic suggests as much, indicating that "over time we'll introduce additional customization options, mainly focusing on extensibility and branding."

The options for branding SharePoint sites can get pretty involved, as described in a recent blog post by Joao Ferreira, a Web developer working for BindTuning, a Portuguese company specialized in SharePoint development.

"Besides all the positive aspects it [branding] can also have a negative impact on SharePoint if not done correctly," Ferreira wrote, including breaking the entire site, he added.

Microsoft Most Valuable Professional Darrell Webster noted in a recent blog post that organizations using "third-party" intranet-in-a-box software solutions to customize SharePoint Online at least have some assurances vs. going the do-it-yourself custom code route. For instance, it's thought that the software vendors providing a customized solution will "have a good relationship with the SharePoint product group and already know what changes are coming."

New SharePoint Framework
Microsoft's way forward for SharePoint Online customizations appears to be the SharePoint Framework, which supports client-side customizations. The framework has now been released as version 1.6, Microsoft announced this month.

SharePoint Framework 1.6 includes Microsoft Graph and Web APIs, which are now at the "general availability" production environment use stage, according to the announcement:

With these APIs now ready for use, you can build and deploy parts that show a list of events from a group calendar, via Microsoft Graph; or you can connect to a contact management system exposed through custom APIs, amongst many possibilities.

The APIs enable "a full management experience for granting API permissions," which "puts administrators in full control," Microsoft's announcement added.

SharePoint Framework version 1.6 also now enables organizations to deploy extensions across a SharePoint Online tenancy. Microsoft's example of what's supported is the ability to customize a header, footer or branding across sites, which is now possible with version 1.6:

For the latter scenario, tenant administrators can now opt to deploy extensions within a SharePoint Framework package across your tenancy. Now every SharePoint site in a tenancy can be easily customized and extended with the power of script. You can get started by reading updated documentation on tenant-wide deployment. 

Microsoft also improved the dialog framework to work with React-based controls with SharePoint Framework version 1.6.

SharePoint Online Management Shell
If that weren't enough, Microsoft announced this month that it has put its SharePoint Online Management Shell into the PowerShell Gallery. Organizations can use this shell to manage their SharePoint Online and OneDrive administrative settings within their Office 365 tenancies.

The one catch is that using the SharePoint Online Management Shell requires having PowerShell 5.0 or newer installed. It's not supported yet for use with PowerShell Core 6, but that integration is part of Microsoft's roadmap plans.

The announcement also hinted that Microsoft is considering combining the capabilities of the SharePoint Online Management Shell and PnP [Patterns and Practices] PowerShell, an open source initiative. However, no definitive plans are in place.

Other SharePoint Online Additions
Microsoft announced that its custom "view formatting" capability (formerly called "row formatting") is starting to roll out to Office 365 tenancies this month. It's a capability that was highlighted during the May SharePoint Conference that lets administrators "format the appearance of individual columns using JSON [JavaScript Object Notation]," Microsoft's announcement indicated. Organizations don't always have to write the JSON scripts to create custom view formatting. Instead, they can often pick them up from "contributions on our SharePoint Patterns and Practices community," the announcement added.

A new document library "content types" capability is getting released to SharePoint Online "targeted" or test-release testers this month, according to a Microsoft announcement. This particular content types capability lets IT pros add a file template to a library via the "New" drop-down menu. It's currently scoped to a single library and won't overwrite other library templates. However, Microsoft is planning to introduce "a centrally managed content type, along with its custom metadata rules and templates, to be published in all locations."

Microsoft also added some scripting capabilities to apply labels to SharePoint Online document libraries, according to an announcement.

About the Author

Kurt Mackie is senior news producer for the 1105 Enterprise Computing Group.

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