The Evolution of Microsoft, SharePoint & Office 365

Microsoft clarifies and extends its vision for on-prem SharePoint, Office 365 services, and hybrid integration

Dan Holme

by Dan Holme on 2/2/2015

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cloud, evolution, hybrid, Julia White, Microsoft, Office 365, on-prem, on-premises, SharePoint, Strategy, vision

Evolution of SharePoint and Office 365, on-premises, hybrid and cloud

Today (February 2, 2015), Julia White (@julwhite), the general manager for the Office Product Management team, posted an extensive article on the Office 365 Blogs site that clarifies and extends Microsoft’s vision for, and commitment to, both Office 365 as the suite of business productivity experiences delivered as cloud services, and SharePoint, as the on-prem server product.

If I wanted to use “click bait” headlines, I could easily have written “SharePoint Is Dead… Sort Of” or “SharePoint and Office 365 Get Divorced” but, to be honest, I believe what Microsoft has said here is pretty amazing and warrants thoughtful analysis and a lot of respect.

Julia’s message reflects a refreshing perspective of what the company has learned in the past three years about where it is going, and how its journey to the cloud enables a new world of solutions that target real business scenarios that will, I am certain, deliver a new world of business value to its customers. It also reflects a significantly more mature perspective about how Microsoft’s journey impacts its customers, and how Microsoft will be a partner in that journey.

You should absolutely read the article, titled “Evolution of SharePoint.” Rather than regurgitate it here, I want to provide some independent analysis about why the message matters both to Microsoft and to its customers. What Microsoft is saying about itself, here, is revolutionary, not evolutionary, I would argue. It’s perhaps the most important statement Microsoft has made in years regarding Office 365, SharePoint, Lync and Exchange. And if you read closely, it answers one of the questions that has rippled through the community: Is SharePoint Dead? The answer might surprise you. (OK, I couldn’t resist a bit of bait :-) )

The Evolution of Microsoft’s SharePoint Messaging

At the SharePoint Conference that introduced SharePoint 2013, Microsoft stood in front of 10,000 attendees and said, “It’s all about Office 365.” What attendees heard was, “Come to the cloud. We’re leaving you behind on-prem.” That led to a rough 12-18 months, and during that time, Microsoft learned a lot about what its customers were ready for, and what was necessary to help get customers to begin the journey. 

For the most recent 18 months, which included SharePoint Conference 2014, Microsoft has evangelized its commitment to future on-prem versions of SharePoint and to improving the hybrid experience. We all expect those promises to be delivered at Microsoft Ignite in May. Customers began to calm down, to migrate to SharePoint 2013, and to put their toes in the water of SharePoint Online. 

Microsoft realized it couldn’t “run and endgame and go it alone,” as one executive so succinctly put it. Microsoft, its customers, and third-party software and services providers came to a better understanding of the importance of partnering together.

Microsoft also beefed up the talent of its Office team—bringing on and bringing back some excellent team members, unleashing the veterans’ superpowers, and opening new channels of direct communication between the company and its customers. Those efforts to put a personal face on the product, and to connect directly and transparently, has made an enormous impact on the market and will be a business school case study for years to come.

Over these same months, Microsoft began to de-emphasize the use of the SharePoint brand. It’s pretty hard to find places in Office 365—particularly user-facing places—that mention SharePoint. In its public statements, the name SharePoint was used less and less. That led people to wonder whether SharePoint on-prem was dead. In order to really understand the answer, we have to look beyond the messaging at the service itself.

The Evolution of Microsoft’s SharePoint Service

When I became a customer of Microsoft’s cloud, during the Business Productivity Online Suite (BPOS) days, SharePoint’s contribution to the service was barely Windows SharePoint Services. In 2011, Microsoft rolled a significant (but nowhere near complete) piece of SharePoint 2010 into the newly-branded Office 365. In 2012, the service was upgraded significantly, and reflected more of what we knew SharePoint 2013 to be. There were even some novel capabilities baked in, like external sharing. But until recently, Office 365 was viewed by many as “Microsoft running your on-prem products as a service.”

That perception led to huge confusion and debate, because the gaps in SharePoint Online were painful. It was quite difficult for organizations to make architectural decisions. In my view, one of the most problematic issues was the perception that it was either Office 365 or SharePoint on-prem. They were too close, but not close enough. The cost of migration and of supporting a hybrid environment was difficult to justify, and the value proposition was difficult to communicate.

Then, over the last year, Microsoft began to reveal two very illuminating and important strategic efforts.

First, it began to break apart the SharePoint product into its constituent parts and services in Office 365. We went from having one “SharePoint pie” in the sky to having individual mini-pies. SharePoint social began to be replaced with Yammer. And yes, that story is still rough and evolving. My Site document libraries became OneDrive for Business—a distinct and targeted “solution” that is easy to communicate, to understand, to evaluate, and to align with business needs. SharePoint business intelligence has been broken off to PowerBI and Excel.

This breaking up of SharePoint makes sense for so many reasons. It allows Microsoft teams to work independently of each other and to improve their services on their own cadence. It also helps customers understand what they can do in Office 365. After a decade, I still struggle to answer the question, “What is SharePoint?” because I have to start by asking questions like, “It depends… what are you trying to do as a business?” SharePoint has always been too big of a story to tell. Ask me what OneDrive for Business is, or what PowerBI is, or what Yammer is… I can tell you. The granularity helps a lot.

The second illuminating and important trend is the release of new functionality to Office 365 that transcends any one product or service. Office 365 Video, which creates an intranet video portal (“YouTube for the enterprise intranet”) leverages Office 365 (SharePoint sites and document libraries) and Azure Media Services. 

Office 365 Groups includes Exchange, SharePoint (a group-specific site collection), and will include Lync, Yammer, and other collaborative functionality that will make your groups your home page for collaboration, where you can plug in the services (apps) you need to work as a team. 

I haven’t been told this by anyone on the product team, but it would be shocking to me if Groups don’t become the replacement for the team site. Behind the scenes will be some part of SharePoint team sites, but the presentation will be better and the functionality will be improved, with calendaring provided by Exchange (which is one of its strengths) and, I’m sure, improved functionality around people management, task management, and meetings. There’ve been plenty of glimpses into these futures, and I am personally very excited to see what Microsoft announces over the coming few months.

Office Graph and Delve begin to reveal a new capability to unify big data, collaboration, enterprise social and search to revolutionize search and findability. This is something that could only exist in the cloud—where products are kept up-to-date and can be integrated in innovative ways. We’ve only just begun to see the impact of machine learning and social.

NextGen portals, such as Office 365 Video and the upcoming Knowledge Management portal (and there will be more) will deliver huge value that draws on Office Graph and other underlying services.

OneDrive, which I believe this year will become effectively unlimited, and integrates across devices and services including email attachment sharing, is just huge.

And, as Julia points out in the blog post, Office 365 powers Microsoft’s ability to deliver on its newfound drive to provide its services to mobile devices and across all major platforms.

So as these new capabilities are released, customers begin to see that Office 365 is more than just SharePoint Online. It’s integrated. It’s innovative. And it’s about targeted apps or services that address specific use cases as well as an extensible platform—what Microsoft is calling “experiences.”  By breaking SharePoint into its pieces, Microsoft can innovate each piece more rapidly and refactor and connect those services to deliver yet more innovation. The whole is much, much greater than the sum of the parts.

Microsoft has seen this coming. Those of us who pay close attention to the space have had no doubt. Now it’s clear. SharePoint is dead. But only as an identity, and only in the cloud. It will live on, on-prem. But in the cloud, we’ve reached the tipping point where we leave behind SharePoint Online as a monolithic platform-in-the-cloud, and begin to see it as an evolved higher being, where each of its strengths are now individual services crafted into experiences.

The Evolution of SharePoint On-Prem

SharePoint as a brand will live on in the on-prem, server version of the product when SharePoint 2016 (let’s assume Microsoft will call it that—it’s not rocket science) is released later this year.

Julia’s blog post emphasizes a point I’ve been making for years: Office 365 is different than SharePoint. It’s more. It’s better (as a broad statement). But it’s not enough. On-prem SharePoint will continue to support key use cases for many customers, and Microsoft’s investments in the on-prem server product will continue for the near-to-foreseeable future.

There are two broad areas of investment in SharePoint 2016. First, the on-prem server will reflect what Microsoft has learned by running SharePoint as a service. There will be significant improvements to manageability, performance, and security baked in to the next version of SharePoint.

Second, on-prem SharePoint Server will enable connectivity to, interaction with, and consumption of cloud services, thus beginning to remove some of the very painful “rough edges” customers feel as they move into increasingly hybrid architectures. We know Microsoft will support hybrid search, integration with Yammer and Office Graph, and more BI scenarios.

I know Microsoft is looking at which cloud functionality can be brought to the on-prem product, as well. What I hear from my sources is very exciting. The events in April and May, including SharePoint Evolution, where Microsoft is keynoting, along with Microsoft’s own Build and Ignite events, will be the big reveal.

As you can see from the initial set of sessions that have been announced for Ignite, there is a lot of SharePoint and Office 365 content. And the content balance will reflect what Julia lays out in her blog post: both Office 365 and on-prem, with themes of experiences, extensibility, and management.

Today is a big day for the Microsoft Office team. I think they successfully clarified their vision and strategy. Their message is both a statement of the future and a revelation of what they’ve learned from the past. If they continue to build on and deliver on their vision, they will continue to win over many of the doubters, and many of their competitors’ customers.  That’s what I think. What do you think??

Topic: Office 365

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  • Great informative post. I get more information from this. That information is so helpful to me.
    Microsoft SharePoint
  • I fully agree with your analysis and am very grateful for you sharing your insight. If you have any thoughts around hybrid scenarios going forward, where SharePoint 2013 and 2016 (on-prem) work together with Office 365 (online) which is where I think the reality will lie for most sizeable organisations, particularly those with prior investments in SharePoint.
    Thank you so much for the post ... great stuff!
  • Dan, great stuff. You have a very mature view of where things are going for collaboration platforms at Microsoft. It is a new world of greater possibilities and I think you get that!
  • Great article. When transitioning a platform like SharePoint, the challenge is how do you continue to support the enormous existing investment made by organizations in building productivity applications (which can take years) while moving to new capabilities and architecture? What do you say to a customer who has spent millions on platform development that may use tools like Infopath, site templates etc. to build custom SharePoint solutions, only to worry it is going away with the next big thing from Microsoft? Any of us who have been around technology change, understand that rapid technology change must consider the application development and adoption cycle which could be 5 or more years.

    If MS does not consider this and handle it correctly, then no matter what cool new things they come out with, they will lose the trust of businesses to build upon the platform.
  • Thanks for the insightful opinion, and it's making me excited for Office 365 and SharePoint.
  • Great article. I agree. Can't wait to see what happens between now and Ignite.