While most readers are likely familiar with the name SharePoint, it’s equally likely that many of you, like me, rarely if ever actually use the product. I aim to change that. Thanks to my testing of the Office 365 service over the past nine months, I’ve become more and more intrigued by this jack-of-all-trades product which, like an old SNL skit, is both a dessert topping and a floor wax, a product so versatile and useful that it defies you to describe it quickly and simply.


The Question Remains, What is SharePoint

SharePoint, of course, is actually quite popular. In fact, Microsoft tells me that it now records over 100 million active users and that the SharePoint business generates over $1.3 billion in annual revenues. It’s used by 78 percent of the Fortune 500. And SharePoint isn’t sitting still: It delivers double-digit growth each year and my guess is that the advent of Office 365—which now provides SharePoint 2010 access to individuals and truly small businesses for the first time ever—will drive even faster growth.

The question remains, however. What is SharePoint? And how can you use it as a user, a developer, an IT pro, or a system administrator? What exactly does SharePoint bring to the party?

Microsoft’s official description of SharePoint is deliciously vague and instead of providing a simple, one-sentence definition of the product, it provides links to several high-level capabilities. But in a recent briefing, Microsoft director of SharePoint product management Jared Spataro delivered what I think is the best, and simplest, description I’ve seen of SharePoint yet.

“SharePoint lets you share anything with anyone,” he said, simply. And where SharePoint’s first ten years were marked largely by sharing within an organization, SharePoint’s next ten years are all about sharing with people outside your organization.

There you go. In the past, email was the de facto sharing mechanism that we all used. But that’s not effective anymore, and as SharePoint has evolved and matured, it’s grown to match the sharing needs of its user base.

SharePoint started as a server for storing and sharing documents inside of a business, and as such its origins date back to the FrontPage Server Extensions (and then later the Office Server Extensions), and Microsoft’s early attempts to establish its successful Office franchise in the server world. The genius behind SharePoint, perhaps, can be tied to an early design mantra that provided IT workers with the ability to create collaborative intranet sites and then portals from which they could store and share documents with coworkers, all without requiring a help desk ticket or a request to a busy admin. That is, SharePoint put the power of collaboration in the hands of the people who actually needed it.

Over time, SharePoint’s capabilities expanded up and out, and today the product, which includes an on-premise server called SharePoint 2010 and a hosted service called SharePoint Online, provide an incredible range of functionality. I’ll be describing these capabilities in a series of articles over the next few weeks. But for now, I want to provide a mile-high view of the power of SharePoint with the hopes that you’ll examine this product for your own collaborative needs going forward. If you’re an IT Pro in a Microsoft-centric environment, chances are you already have access to SharePoint. Otherwise, you can easily and inexpensively access SharePoint on your own through Office 365.

Here’s just some of what you get with SharePoint.

Sites. The most basic point of collaboration in SharePoint, perhaps, is the site, and this can be a private site (one that is shared only with specific coworkers inside of an organization) or a shared site (one that is shared with workers at a partner business; these are typically thought of as intranet sites and extranet sites, respectively. A site is what you make of it, it can look like a traditional Internet web site, if you want, or a repository for various SharePoint objects, including documents (with full revision history and change management, regulatory compliance, and the like), notes, calendars, tasks, libraries, discussion forums, workflows, and more. SharePoint sites can be searched, grouped into collections, shared in a myriad of granular ways, and edited to your heart’s content to be as pretty or utilitarian as you desire. When people think of SharePoint, typically they are thinking of sites, and of the basic document storage and collaboration features that are contained within.

Internet sites. Building off of the intranet and extranet sites capabilities, Microsoft has quickly begun bolstering the use of SharePoint as an Internet web site creation and management tool, driven largely by how customers were actually using the product. And unlike early SharePoint Internet sites, which were marked by obviously template-based UI styles, today’s SharePoint-based Internet sites are diverse and professional looking. In fact, some of the nicest-looking web sites online, as you’ll soon see, where created in SharePoint.

Social networking. With the rise of social networking services such as Facebook, many organizations are looking for ways in which their workers can share professional information about themselves—what they’re working on, their areas of expertise, and so on—but within an internal, controlled environment. So SharePoint now offers very familiar tools and interfaces for this functionality, providing such things as activity streams, contacts suggestions, friends and following lists, user profiles, blogs, and the like. Via a My Site that’s available to each user, you can provide information about yourself, view where you sit in your organization’s hierarchy, link to frequently-needed documents and other objects, and so on. If you understand Facebook, you’ll immediately grok these features, and why they can be very useful in a less public, work-related context.

Development platform. I’ve used the word platform to describe SharePoint with a reason: This isn’t just a server, or a hosted service. Instead, SharePoint is a full-fledged platform that can be targeted by developers at a variety of levels. This means that companies can create internal solutions that are specific to their needs and that third party developers can write SharePoint solutions they can sell publicly. SharePoint solutions are written in ASP.NET, and developers are free to choose from a number of tools, from full-fledged Visual Studio for actual software development down to Visio (for workflows) and SharePoint Designer (for site design). There are some differences between on-premise and hosted SharePoint application development, but I’ll cover that in a future article. 

Lync integration. Like any other Microsoft server (or service), SharePoint doesn’t stand alone. It also integrates with related servers (and services), including most notably, Lync, Microsoft’s new presence and communications solution. This is particularly compelling in Office 365, since that service includes hosted versions of both SharePoint and Lync, giving many customers their first peek at both, and at how they can work together. At the simplest level, the true power of this integration occurs because every object created in SharePoint is tagged with, among other things, the creator of that object, along with information about who last modified the object. So from virtually anywhere in SharePoint, you can reach out to those people, see their availability and schedule, and link up with them in many ways, including email, text chat, Lync call (audio), video chat, and so on.

Availability

As noted previously, SharePoint is available in both on-premise and hosted forms, and there are various SharePoint clients that work with both as well.

The on-premise versions of SharePoint 2010 are now divided into a free option called SharePoint Foundation 2010, which can actually be installed on a Windows 7 desktop for development or testing purposes, and SharePoint Server 2010, which is of course the full-fledged version of the product. Microsoft’s hosted version of SharePoint 2010 is called SharePoint Online and is now available via Office 365. Pricing starts at $6 per user per month for individuals and small businesses.

On the PC client, Microsoft offers two clients. SharePoint Workspace 2010 comes in various versions of the Microsoft Office 2010 suite and even as a standalone application. SharePoint Workspace (previously known as Office Groove) lets you seamlessly access your SharePoint sites content from anywhere, and do so while offline. You can also sync folders in Windows to SharePoint so that locally edited files are always synced back to SharePoint as well. There’s also a SharePoint Designer 2010 client that you can download for free from the Microsoft web site; this application lets you design, customize, and manage web sites in any version of SharePoint 2010 using an Office-like UI.

(It’s worth noting that Microsoft Office applications like Word, Excel, OneNote and so on also integrate nicely with SharePoint, and that’s true regardless of whether you use SharePoint Workspace.)

Also, Microsoft offers nice integration in Windows Phone as well, and it’s getting even better in Windows Phone “Mango”, which will feature explicit support for Office 365 too. This functionality is built-in, and comes free with every Windows Phone. (Mango will be a free update as well.)

What’s next?

So I’ve only touched the surface here, of course. But for the remainder of this series, I’m going to dive deeper into individual SharePoint 2010 and SharePoint Online capabilities, providing a more detailed view of what’s possible in this exciting on premise and hosted collaboration solution. If you’re mystified by SharePoint, as I was, you may also be interested in the ways in which myWindows 8 Secrets co-author Rafael Rivera and I are already using SharePoint (Online, in Office 365) to collaborate on this next book, sharing documents, notes, and other information in real time. I’ll document that process throughout this series as well.


In past articles in this ongoing series, I’ve alluded to SharePoint’s evolution over the years to become the Swiss Army Knife, of sorts, of Microsoft’s platforms. In its most recent guises, in the on-premise SharePoint 2010 as well as Office 365’s SharePoint Online, SharePoint provides a startling number of useful services to its users and has vastly exceeded the product’s comparatively limited beginnings.

But remember the words of Microsoft director of SharePoint product management Jared Spataro? Back in Part 1, I noted his observation that “SharePoint lets you share anything with anyone.” When you think about “sharing” things online today, you probably think of social networking services like Facebook, Google+, or Twitter, which let you broadcast information to some group of users—friends, family members, the whole world, whatever—in ways that have become increasingly familiar. Wouldn’t it be cool if SharePoint provided this type of functionality, but tied into the incredible content management backend it already supplies, and aimed at the needs of a knowledge worker looking to collaborate with his coworkers?

It would be. And it is. Because this functionality—as well as a host of related features—is indeed part of SharePoint. And as I keep learning about SharePoint, the closer you look, the more you find. It’s like an onion, where each layer of social content functionality reveals even more below. If you were just looking for a private version of Facebook, yes, it’s in there. But there’s so much more.

“SharePoint has tons of built-in functionality for social networking, kind of a Facebook for the enterprise, if you will,” Christian Finn, the Director of SharePoint product management at Microsoft told me during a briefing earlier this summer. “It provides public and private interfaces for sharing information and professional networking inside of organizations. It’s not just about sharing documents, you can also share information of almost any kind.”

SharePoint’s social networking tools are so vast, integrated, and pervasive throughout the product that I’ll simply list some highlights, in no particular. These include:

My Site profile. Each SharePoint user gets their own My Site profile page in the server, providing them with a way to describe themselves, what they’re working on, what content they’ve created and are sharing, their skills, interests, and competencies, and so on. If you’re familiar with how a user’s profile page works on Facebook, you get the idea, and you can of course search through the available profile pages in SharePoint to find others in your organization.

“The organizations that do this right really customize the experience,” Finn told me while showing me examples from a particularly nice looking Electronic Arts internal site. “SharePoint web parts make it easy to customize the look and feel and provide My Sites with the information users want communicated. You can get a sense of what these people are all about and what they know.”

There’s also an Org Chart browser that lets you view the business’ organizational and social contexts in a visual fashion. The person you are viewing is displayed in the middle of the screen, with his peers on the left and right, direct reports below, and boss above. “This is something you don’t need on the Internet,” Finn continued, “but it’s very useful inside the organization. And it’s much nicer than an Exchange address list.”

And while I’ll discuss this in more detail later in this series, it is worth noting that profile pages, like any other SharePoint content, can expose the presence and content information for its author. So within an organization, if you find content and would like to reach out to that person, you can do so right from the content itself, in SharePoint, using the presence icon, which will be green if they’re available. A contact card will pop-up, providing you with access to the various ways in which you can reach them: Instant messaging, email, phone call, or whatever.

My Newsfeed. From your My Site, you can type in a status message, as you might on Facebook or other public services. This message appears on the page when others visit your profile, of course, but they can also go out to colleagues via internal news feeds, as per Facebook’s new feed. You may choose to automatically be provided with status information from coworkers in your part of the company, or with whom you’re collaborating on a project.

Recent Activities feed. Your recent activities—things posted to your My Site—are captured and relayed to others via a Recent Activities feed. These include items you’ve tagged or rated, colleague updates, comments and notes, profile updates, and the like. If you’d rather not publicize certain information, it can be marked as private. (Note that tagged items don’t have to be inside SharePoint, they can also include any external URL.)

Suggestions. In addition to finding people with specific skills or interests through SharePoint, it’s also possible for one person to suggest another coworker, giving you the opportunity to add them as a colleague and stay up to date on their activities via the news feed. And you’re not limited to just following people: You can also choose to follow a tag, and these things interconnect. Follow a person who’s following a tag, and you’ll see information about that item in your feed as well. “It’s about sharing interests and keeping useful information flowing,” Finn told me.

People search. All of the people in SharePoint are indexed and searchable, of course, but so are their profiles and content. This will help you find people you’re looking for explicitly, but also people that meet certain criteria. And you can filter search results in very interesting ways, including by social distance—such as when you want to find people only within your direct organization or business unit—and by location.

“Customers have questions and need the answer and experts fast,” Finn told me. “Before SharePoint, this required a ‘spray and pray’ email outreach. But now, you can search SharePoint and quickly find the right person and, if they’re online, communicate with them in real time. This can cut the time from days to minutes, and it creates agility for an organization.”

Tag profile pages. Items that are tagged in SharePoint each get a My Site-type profile page of their own. It’s basically an index of that tag, everything that’s tagged with the term, be it pages, documents, blog posts, whatever. You can read and leave comments, see which users have used the tag, follow the tag as an interest, or add it as a responsibility.

Blogs. SharePoint provides rich blogging functionality for both internal and external purposes, and it’s gotten a lot easier to use in SharePoint 2010 with industry standard AJAX controls instead of the old, ActiveX-based designs from previous versions. This blogging functionality provides all the features you’d expect, with blog creation and management, blog posting, support for multiple authors, and so on.

The editing experience looks full featured as well, and like all SharePoint interfaces these days, it uses the familiar and productive SharePoint ribbon UI for exposing various blog-related commands. Contextual ribbon tabs appear when you select certain post objects, like images.

Wikis. While SharePoint itself could be viewed as a “wiki on steroids,” the server also provides users with support for more traditional wikis, and provides wiki-specific web parts for customizing the experience. According to Finn, most customers seem to use blogging internally or externally, but not both. Wikis, on the other hand, are used more internally.

Video. You can also easily post video to SharePoint (but not edit it online). This provides a way to insert video content into documents, blog posts, and other SharePoint objects, and video can be targeted for internal or external use, or both. There’s even a skinnable Silverlight-based player so you can customize the playback experience.

OneNote Shared Notebooks. As with Office Web Apps, it’s possible to host shared OneNote notebooks in SharePoint for collaborative note taking.

Outlook integration. Via Outlook 2010’s Social Connector (it’s available for 2003 and 2007 too), you can view social feeds from external services like Facebook and LinkedIn using provider add-ins. But the Social Connector works natively with many of SharePoint’s social features too, providing users with a way to keep up with the doings at work without having to leave the interface they’re already using. And this isn’t just a read-only feed; you can also rate, tag, collaborate, and so on, all from within Outlook.

Put simply, SharePoint offers users with a wealth of options for social networking, and anyone who’s familiar with popular social networking services should feel right at home with these tools. That they’re generally available for a mixture of private and public use and take advantage of the platform’s underlying tagging and management infrastructures is the icing on the cake.