8 Jun 2018

The Future of SharePoint Development

This post is the sixth and last in a series looking at how SharePoint development has changed over the years, and how it is likely to change in the future. In this post, we will look ahead to the future of SharePoint development.

More posts in the series:


SharePoint Online and Office 365

Following on from the release of SharePoint 2016, SharePoint Online is the modern SharePoint platform. New features come first to the cloud, and when appropriate, make their way to the on-premise version. As such, it now makes sense to discuss the roadmap for SharePoint Online and Office 365 before considering the on-premises version.

At the SharePoint Virtual Summit in May 2017, Jeff Teper (Corporate VP of Office, SharePoint and OneDrive at Microsoft) reinforced SharePoint’s central position in the Office 365 business. This was seen as an attempt to settle the uncertainty about the platform’s future prior to the release of SharePoint 2016. Following this, at the 2017 Ignite conference in September, Microsoft announced the following features for SharePoint Online:

  • A number of new web parts would become available (such as a Microsoft Forms web part, a planner web part, the file preview web part, the activity web part to see what others in your organisation are working on, and a 3D file viewer web part). These were released in January 2018.
  • Better Teams and Groups integration, including being able to launch Teams directly from SharePoint, and being able to embed individual SharePoint pages within a Teams tab.
  • A number of Mobile app improvements, such as improved native mobile sites, an interactive news feed and bookmarking functionality.
  • Improved user experience on intranet sites:
    • Adding more web parts and layouts for communication sites
    • Adding News pages to both Team and Communication sites. These will be similar to wiki pages, but will allow users to easily add content that looks well.
    • Improved people cards making use of a LinkedIn integration to retrieve data for people in your organisation.
    • Streamlined custom site provisioning
    • Improved tool box for web parts to easily add web parts to any page.
    • Hub sites that provide a summary of content from other designated sites. These were released to SharePoint Online in March 2018, but they will not be supported in the initial release of SharePoint 2019.
      • Additionally, when a site is joined to a Hub site, the site inherits by default the Hub’s them and offers the ability to run Site Scripting methods
  • List improvements, including the ability to add PowerBI items and Bing maps into list view forms, and no more paging for large lists.
  • Improved search functionality, such as personalized search results, an updated results page, live preview of files and the inclusion of folders in the search results (released December 2017)
  • Security & Governance
    • A new SharePoint Admin Center, based on the Office 365 Admin Center. This will allow administrators to analyse file-based and site-based activities and manage all sites from a single page. Released in January 2018.
    • Improved functionality to manage your SharePoint sites, including previously hidden sites created by Groups/Teams.
    • Site-level conditional access –based the device the user is currently using.
    • Set compliance based on a user’s location, and the applicable regulations, a feature known as ‘Multi-Geo Capabilities in Office 365’.
    • Service-level encryption
    • Self-service OneDrive restore (released in January 2018)

Additionally, at the SharePoint Conference North America two weeks ago, Microsoft announced that the following features would be coming to Office 365:

  • SharePoint Spaces will allow users to make use of AI and VR/AR content for immersive experiences
  • Other Office 365 applications will start making use of AI capabilities for content  collaboration:
    • Personalized intelligent search in the SharePoint mobile app
    • The updated Office.com site that uses AI in the Recommended and Discover sections to personalize the recommendations to each person
    • Enhanced image searches
  • Organisational news and page management for intranet communications
  • GDPR and multi-geo data residency for SharePoint
  • Improved integration between SharePoint Online and Microsoft Teams

As you can see from above, and from the Office 365 roadmap, there are a number of new features being actively developed for SharePoint Online. The majority of changes to SharePoint Online are user interface improvements, new features to allow organisations to manage their data in the cloud, and greater integration with other Office 365 services.

From the 2017 Ignite conference, it was made clear that OneDrive would play a more substantial role in Office 365 and that it would become the “universal way to access all your files”. New features include:

  • Files On-Demand – see and sync all your files (coming to Windows 10 this summer); open, access and share files right from desktop
  • Share seamlessly from File Explorer and Mac Finder
  • Expanded administration controls for sharing
  • Able to share data securely without those accessing requiring a Microsoft account
  • File previews (using the same file preview web part used in SharePoint)
  • A scan button n the OneDrive mobile app to allow users to quickly capture photos, receipts, and documents. They will also be able to have OneDrive automatically upload photos to Office 365 for further processing (such as text extraction)

There has never been a clear distinction between SharePoint Online and OneDrive – they are both online document services used for storage and file sharing. Typically, OneDrive is used for personal storage while SharePoint is used to store and collaborate on documents for an organisation/department/team. The above changes to OneDrive seem to blur the distinction between the two products further.

Microsoft is now pushing the cloud model as the main way of using Office applications, with your content and your applications being available wherever you are and on whatever device you are using. As part of this push, Office 2019 will likely be the last version to be sold with a perpetual licence (bought outright, as opposed to buying a subscription to the software). Future versions will be tied to an Office 365 subscription.


SharePoint 2019

Microsoft confirmed at the MS Ignite conference in September 2017 that it would release SharePoint 2019 towards the end of 2018, with the first previews due soon. The following features are likely to be included in SharePoint 2019:

For Users:

  • More modern page layouts and site template (such as the Team News and Communication sites). However, the new Hub Sites that have been recently released in SharePoint Online, will probably miss the initial release of SharePoint 2019 (but will probably be available via a Feature Pack at a later date).

  • The modern look and feel of SharePoint Online will become the default look in the on-premise version, leading to an updated modern looking UI. The classic pages will remain, for this release at least, as a fall back. This includes:

    • The improved SharePoint Admin Centre

    • Suit Navigation

    • App Launcher

    • Modern sharing experience

  • Improved file activity, usage tracking and stats for files

  • An updated NextGen OneDrive Sync Client, with no support for SharePoint 2016. This will likely include the Files On-Demand feature to provide the selective synchronization of SharePoint-based documents.

  • Significant improvements to lists including:

    • Improved list creation user experience

    • The ability to copy and paste from Excel into a SharePoint List (eliminating the need for datasheet views)

    • Row formatting

  • An updated UI for the SharePoint mobile app

  • Improved support for Hybrid architectures. This will include greater integration with Flow and PowerApps, the successors to InfoPath, allowing for data to move more easily between on-premise and cloud based SharePoint instances. These are seen as ‘no code’ business process tools for power users.

    • Forms (used in list and libraries) can be edited with PowerApps to create custom forms (the old use case for InfoPath)

    • Microsoft Flow will become the default workflow engine, although old workflows will remain usable

For Administrators:

  • Direct links in Central Administration to SharePoint documentation
  • SMTP authentication when sending emails (including Office 365)
  • Microsoft will be releasing Workflow Manager 2019 to replace Workflow Manager 1.0
  • InfoPath, despite being deprecated, will continue to be supported in SharePoint 2019. InfoPath has an extended support date of July 2026.

    • Similarly, SharePoint Designer is likely to be still supported in SharePoint 2019, which just goes to prove the saying “the ones you hate never, ever leave”. However, Jeff Teper suggests that SharePoint Designer is unlikely to be needed, as all customization should be possible using the new web parts.

    • Improved Hybrid administration options:
      • A new SharePoint Hybrid status bar to allow you to monitor the health of your hybrid configuration
      • Direct links in Central Administration to the Hybrid Configuration Wizard
      • OneDrive in Office 365 will be used by default in Hybrid scenarios, rather than on-premise.
      • The Modern Office 365 Search will be used to give a consistent experience in a hybrid environment
      • The ability to configure hybrid scenarios whilst installing SharePoint 2019
    • Use of # and % characters will be allowed in file and folder names
    • Increase in the URL path limit to 400 characters
    • The SharePoint Migration Tool will be included to move content from SharePoint on-premise databases to either SharePoint Online or the OneDrive Service, that will include PowerShell support.

    For Developers:

    • Greater support for the SPFx development model. with a continued push to make this the default development model.

    The major new features announced so far for SharePoint 2019 are the Modern user interface and the improved integration with Office 365 for hybrid architectures.


    Developing for SharePoint 2019

    With the release of SharePoint 2019, the SharePoint Framework (SPFx) will become the only framework to survive two releases as the preferred development model. This will hopefully encourage the developer community to start using it more. SPFx became available to use with SharePoint 2016 on-premise following the release of Feature Pack 2 in September 2017.

    Microsoft is continuing to reboot the UI with modern pages becoming the default page type, and with SharePoint 2019, developers will be able to use the SPFx to develop web parts for the Page model. There are unfortunately no plans to bring the modern UI to SharePoint 2016 on-premise.

    I have mixed feelings about the SharePoint Framework. I feel that (at last) Microsoft has given developers a development model worth using, and we had to break from the legacy SharePoint server-side development practices. The SharePoint Framework embraces web development best practices and tooling, and opens up the SharePoint development to a wider audience of developers. However, as the majority of organisations are still on SharePoint 2013 or earlier (see below), we won’t see a noticeable adoption of SPFx for a number of years.

    It will be interesting to see if Microsoft finally moves to kill off some of the legacy development models. While it is clear that full trust server side solutions will remain (as they are required to make up for the limitations of the SPFx model), will SharePoint Add-Ins and JSLink still be supported in SharePoint 2019? Add-in web parts can be added to modern pages (in SharePoint Online), but I'm not aware of many people using them.

    As noted above, Microsoft has again focused on improving support for hybrid architectures. In particular, the integration of PowerApps and Flow is only for hybrid scenarios, not for on-premise only.


    Conclusions

    I started writing the initial version of this post several years ago as a rant against the App Model and SharePoint Add-Ins in SharePoint 2013. I could clearly see that, despite the protestations of Microsoft evangelists, the App Model was increasing the complexity of SharePoint solutions, while at the same time offering reduced capability compared to full trust solutions. Other developers clearly felt the same, as very few used SharePoint Add-Ins. This lack of adoption led Microsoft to launch their latest development model, the SharePoint Framework, effectively killing the App Model.

    As I wrote and rewrote the rant, it morphed into the current series of posts that look at how SharePoint development has changed over the years. Clearly, in a product that is approaching 20 years old, the recommended best practices are going to change over time as new features are added and development methodologies and tools are adopted, modified and dropped. However, SharePoint developers have seen Microsoft release 4 major development models in the past 10 years. This profusion of development models has been driven by Microsoft’s increasing focus on SharePoint Online and Office 365. This caused the identity crisis I described in my post on SharePoint 2010 – was SharePoint an online service or on-premise software?

    This question was definitively answered with the release of SharePoint 2013 – SharePoint was an online service. This led to doubts if another on-premise version of SharePoint would be released. In the end, Microsoft’s large enterprise customers effectively forced the release of SharePoint 2016, as they were (and largely still are) unwilling to trust their data to Microsoft’s cloud.


    Cloud Adoption

    Microsoft’s focus is clearly on cloud based subscription services, and it has been recommending that organisations move to SharePoint Online since 2014. At the 2016 Future of SharePoint event, a Microsoft speaker revealed that 90% of its 70,000 internal SharePoint sites were hosted on Office 365. At the recent SharePoint Conference North America, it was revealed that:

    • 400,000 organizations are on SharePoint
    • 70% of all seats are in the cloud
    • 135 million active users in Microsoft 365

    It is worth digging into these figures. While 70% of all seats may be in the cloud, these seats will be purchased as part of an Office 365 subscription. These may not be used – based on this survey, around 70% of organisations with Office 365 subscriptions will actually make use of SharePoint Online. (In the same survey, very few organisations valued the SharePoint Online service, unlike email and Office apps – it seems Microsoft has some way to go to deliver business value to customers using SharePoint Online).

    Microsoft 365 is a package of Windows 10, Office 365 and Enterprise Mobility & Security. I’ve been unable to find a breakdown of the Microsoft 365 figures – does the quoted active users figure include people who have purchased Windows 10 (direct from Microsoft or via an OEM)? How many of those users are in subscriptions that have been paid for (as opposed to free student subscriptions)?  Until I see such a breakdown of paid versus free subscriptions, and details of the usage of SharePoint Online and other applications by subscribers, I’m dubious as to how useful or relevant these figures are.

    More meaningful figures can be found in Concept Searching’s 2017 SharePoint and Office 365 State of the Market Survey White Paper. In this survey, most organisations that responded indicated that they were using SharePoint 2013 or earlier (around 50% were on SP213, and a massive 40% were still on SP2010). These figures are backed up by an earlier report from Rencore (The State of SharePoint and Office 365 Development 2016). Only around 20% had migrated to use SharePoint 2016, due to the release’s lack of compelling business features. Around 50% of the organisations used SharePoint Online/Office 365 in some form. Just over 20% planned to migrate to SharePoint Online/Office 365, and around the same figure were considering a hybrid architecture.

    The white paper makes clear that as organisations grow more aware of the benefits and disadvantages of cloud based services like Office 365, they are less keen to replace on-premise applications wholesale:

    ‘The move to the cloud is happening,but not in the droves Microsoft anticipated. Many organizations are now spending the time to develop cloud and cybersecurity plans,and are much more knowledgeable about the pros and cons of “life in the cloud”. As such, they are in no rush to move to the cloud, and, in fact, plan on keeping key applications on-premises.

    The key reasons for organisations not wanting to move SharePoint on-premise to the cloud are:

    1. Large organisations have invested and customized their existing (generally complex) SharePoint on-premise deployments. Moving to the cloud would require losing this investment, and may require significant work to replicate in Office 365.
    2. The long term price for an organisation’s Office 365 subscriptions could greatly exceed the price of their existing on-premise deployment.
    3. Avoiding a costly migration to Office 365 that would involve reviewing content, updating IT infrastructure and considering the governance and security implications. (It is important to note that organisations using SharePoint have typically been slow to to migrate to newer versions, as the migration is a complex and time consuming process. The constant churn of development models has also helped contribute to a reluctance to upgrade to the latest version – no organisation wants to invest time and effort in a development framework only for Microsoft to drop it a year or two later.)
    4. Security and compliance – organisations are afraid of entrusting their data to Microsoft. they are also aware of how difficult it would be to export their data once it was stored with Microsoft data centres, possibly in a different country. This is particularly important following the GDPR legislation came into force.
    5. Restricted customization options available in Office 365 – Microsoft limits significantly how SharePoint Online can be customized. Organisations using SharePoint on-premise have full control over how they use and customize their solutions.

    The main takeaway from the white paper for me was that the majority of organisations are still on SharePoint 2013 or earlier. While most organisations are also making use of Office 365, I suspect this is mainly for email, OneDrive and MySites. Migrating existing sites from on-premise to Office 365 with their customizations seems to be quite rare. It also means that adoption of SPFx is likely to be slow, as organisations using SharePoint 2013 or lower are unable to use it.

    One key reason for organisations not upgrading to more recent versions of SharePoint is the lack of compelling features in the latest releases. Both SharePoint 2016 and 2019 are incremental releases that offer relatively little to organisations already using SharePoint 2010 or 2013. Customers still on SharePoint 2013 may be tempted to upgrade to SharePoint 2016/19 as mainstream support has now ended, but new customers will be more likely to use SharePoint Online and Office 365, something that the Concept Searching white paper also highlights.


    Hybrid

    To encourage the legacy on-premise customers (generally large organisations) to move online, Microsoft has been pushing hybrid architectures, and there is increasing support for hybrid scenarios in SharePoint 2019. In particular, Microsoft is keen to offer online services that can replace customers’ customized on-premise solutions, to allow organisations to avoid costly rewrites of existing custom code. This will also allow Microsoft hook into an organisations data and ease any future migration to the cloud.

    However, organisations who use hybrid architectures have learnt that it greatly increases the complexity of, and the time to implement and deploy, SharePoint solutions. Organisations running a hybrid environment will face a number of usability, maintenance and administration issues, and in reality it is only a viable option for larger companies that have dedicated SharePoint developers and administrators. Additionally, there are are cost implications of running a hybrid solution, as you have the cost of your on-premise farm and the monthly subscription costs.


    The Future of SharePoint and Office 365

    The future of SharePoint is clearly as an online service within the wider Office 365 suite of services and applications. The modern SharePoint application looks to be focused on collaboration services, enhanced with AI and VR. There have been significant new features released recently to improve the use of SharePoint Online as an intranet. Many former SharePoint features now being handled by other teams (PowerBI for business intelligence, Delve for search, PowerApps for forms, Flow for workflow). This points to a trend in Office 365 of having lightweight apps with specific purpose, such as Microsoft Forms.

    Additionally, there is a greater emphasis in modern SharePoint on integration with other O365 applications and services, and fewer customization options available. This applies to both branding (there are limited ways of branding SharePoint Online), and also in custom code options (the SPFx offers significantly fewer options than a full-trust solution). To compensate, Microsoft have been pushing no code tools like PowerApps and Flow that can be used by power users.

    For developers, developing for SharePoint Online will mean consuming a series of end-points from the various online services and applications being integrated with SharePoint. While we will be able to make use of modern web development techniques, I suspect there will be significantly less requirement to develop custom solutions as Microsoft develops new applications and services that can do a similar job for a monthly subscription. This allows organisations to have a low cost solution (initially – monthly subscriptions can quickly add up), and further locks the organisation into Office 365.

    SharePoint on-premise will continue to be released for legacy customers, for at least one more version (2022 anyone?), but is basically going to become a container with basic functionality that allows easy integration with other subscription Office 365 services. This is very similar to the path being taken by Exchange on-premise. It is unlikely that many new customers will invest in SharePoint on-premise now, specifically with Microsoft pointing towards Office 365 as the preferred option. For existing customers, the decision to upgrade will become harder, as each new release of SharePoint offers less and less business value. SharePoint is a mature product – is unlikely to change significantly in the basic features it offers.

    SharePoint is an outstanding product that has evolved significantly over it’s twenty year history. After many years battling it, I’m finally moving on to other areas of development (Azure and Xamarin, and also some Linux/Python development on the side), but I’ll always have a soft spot for it. Many thanks to all those readers who have struggled on to read this last instalment of a series that began over 18 months ago.

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