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Microsoft Showcases SharePoint 2013, Aims To 'Supercharge' Enterprise Social Networking

Just as the launch of Windows 8 last month was Microsoft's effort to "reimagine" Windows, the company is taking a similar tack with SharePoint 2013.

Microsoft officials this week are showcasing the revamped SharePoint to 10,000 IT pros, developers and partners at its annual SharePoint Conference, taking place this year in Las Vegas.

SharePoint 2013 is designed to offer parity with its cloud counterpart Office 365 and embed social networking into its entire feature set. In addition, the new release boasts extended business intelligence (BI) capabilities; offers vastly improved synchronization of documents and other file types; and introduces a new application model centered on the new Apps for SharePoint 2013 marketplace, which, like other app stores such as the Apple's iTunes and Microsoft's Windows Store, is more conducive to modern apps developed for tablets and smartphones.

SharePoint has become one of Microsoft's fastest-growing products. Now Microsoft is revealing how big it is: Officials say it is a $2 billion-per-year business, a milestone few Microsoft products have achieved, though the company rarely provides revenue breakdowns of specific products. After the release of SharePoint 2010 two-and-a-half years ago, Microsoft split the SharePoint engineering team into two groups. One was charged with building the next release of SharePoint to power the SharePoint Online service of Office 365.

"Our goal was very simple -- to build the largest-scale enterprise cloud service in the industry, to be able to take the billion Office users and be able to run the full back-end services in the cloud with Office 365," said Microsoft Corporate Vice President Jeff Teper, known as the "father of SharePoint," speaking in the opening conference keynote. "A lot of work went on from provisioning, to telemetry to disaster recovery, building out datacenters [with] hundreds of millions of dollars [of] investment."

Teper
Microsoft Corporate VP Jeff Teper at the SharePoint Conference keynote. (Source: Microsoft)

The other team was focused on the user experience -- building the social networking capabilities, revamped search engine and broader BI capabilities. But with the growing appetite of workers and their managers to use social networking tools to make them more productive and to facilitate workflow and information sharing, experts believe it will drive organizations to upgrade to the new release.

New Social Emphasis To Drive Upgrades
A Forrester Research poll of 153 clients who already have SharePoint found 68 percent of respondents planned to introduce the new version within two years (37 percent within the first year and 31 percent within the second). What's interesting about that finding is 70 percent of that sample said they already have upgraded to SharePoint 2010, which is unusual since organizations typically skip subsequent releases in order to amortize their investments.

"This is conjecture here but it could be around the social experience," said Forrester analyst Rob Koplowitz in an interview. "The feedback on the social facilities in SharePoint 2010 was pretty dismal. That might be the driver but others include the need for improved document and records management. Also, it could be they're trying to move to a more stable development environment."

In addition to implementing a social interface that creates the enterprise equivalent of Facebook when managing documents, other content and projects -- thus allowing workers and extended workgroups to securely follow and interact with each other -- Microsoft announced it will integrate Yammer Enterprise into SharePoint 2013 and Office 365. Microsoft acquired Yammer in July for $1.2 billion and brought it into its Office division.

With the new SharePoint release, customers can connect Yammer via Yammer Web parts and Yammer's new Enterprise Graph feature. Launched last month, Yammer Enterprise Graph connects data, people and conversations across business applications. "The goal is to create a universal social layer that can span all the applications you're in so that conversations don't become siloed and fragmented," said Adam Pisoni, Yammer's CTO and a co-founder, who spoke in Monday's keynote session.

Enterprise Graph uses the Open Graph specification, originated by Facebook to allow any Web page to become a rich object in a social graph, allowing for the use of SharePoint and Yammer as it exists, while providing the integration. In the future, Microsoft said it will add tighter integration via unified identity to allow single sign-on, integrated document management and feed aggregation. Also in the pipeline is a native Windows 8 app that will make content accessible from any device, Pisoni said.

Targeting Yammer Enterprise to the Masses
Microsoft will continue to offer Yammer's free social networking service and is also looking to make the paid offering, which offers better enterprise management, more appealing. To that end, the company is slashing the price of Yammer Enterprise from $15 to $3 per user per month. The company will also offer Yammer Enterprise free of charge with Office 365 customers with Enterprise Agreement plans.  

"Every SharePoint online customer will get Yammer for free," Pisoni said. "What we are trying to do is give you Yammer inside SharePoint and SharePoint inside Yammer so we can supercharge social networking in the years to come."

In addition to social networking, Microsoft made a strong push for customers to give the cloud-based version of the offering, SharePoint Online, a try.

"We really recommend moving to the cloud for the best experience overall," Teper said. "We understand not everyone is there yet. This will take time. People who want to run their own servers -- that's great. We have the best server release we've ever done in SharePoint 2013. The thing you should take away from our cloud focus is all we've learned about optimizing the system and deployment and monitoring. We've put into the server product and put into the deployment guidance."

SharePoint Designer Is Optional
Microsoft also talked up the new app model and the fact that developers are no longer required to use the SharePoint Designer. SharePoint introduces a new feature called Design Manager that lets designers upload design files to SharePoint, which converts the HTML to a SharePoint Master Page. "You can use any design tool once you've created the design assets," said Richard Riley, a director on the Microsoft SharePoint team, who demonstrated the Design Manager during the keynote.

By allowing the use of any design tool, including Adobe's Dreamweaver, Microsoft is hoping to broaden the base of developers and designers that build apps for SharePoint. With the new app model, applications don't run within SharePoint but rather invoke standard Web capabilities such as HTML 5, JavaScript and CSS. SharePoint users can also opt to build apps in Java, Python, Perl and other programming languages.

SkyDrive Pro Extends Document Synchronization
SharePoint Online requires this new app model but perhaps one of the most noteworthy cloud features in the new SharePoint release is SkyDrive Pro, which replaces the SharePoint Workspace, a SharePoint 2010 feature that evolved following Microsoft's acquisition of Groove Networks, the company founded by former Microsoft chief software architect Ray Ozzie. SharePoint Workspace is the tool that allows for offline document access and file synchronization.

SkyDrive Pro is a centralized cloud storage service which works much like the consumer-based SkyDrive service, except it's designed to be controlled by IT. Enterprise administrators can provision and manage the service that lets users store, synchronize and share business tasks. Users can store files either in private and/or shared folders, and can synchronize them with the PC they are working on and have them updated on other devices and with others in a group.

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