Microsoft’s May 4 SharePoint Announcements and Client-Side Development Futures

Marc Anderson

by Marc D Anderson on 5/4/2016

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client side development, Future of SharePoint, SharePoint Framework

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In the beginning, there was Bill, and Bill was good. Bill revolutionized the concept of computing (along with a handful of others). But somewhere along the way, something happened. It’s not clear exactly what. Maybe it was the disaster of Vista. Maybe it was the reign of Ballmer. What it was exactly doesn’t really matter anymore.

Microsoft had become a monolithic, unresponsive thing, with few ways to penetrate its outer ranks. We felt like the chimps at the monolith; we had little control. We didn’t know what Microsoft was anymore.

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Instead of listening to its customers, Microsoft responded with reasons why they knew best, why they would take care of us, even if it didn’t feel like they were taking care of us at all. When we asked for things, we didn’t get them.

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We no longer felt a connection with Microsoft. They weren’t watching our backs; they weren’t listening to us; they didn’t seem to know what we wanted.

Then something changed. It changed very quickly. None of us really understood what was changing, but we knew it was good.

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Fast forward to today: May 4, 2016. Today’s announcements about SharePoint feel like the culmination of several years of recovery. It feels like things have come around again. Even an old cynic like me can be a Microsoft fan now without regretting it half the time.

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Today, Jeff Teper and his crew have both turned back time and looked forward to show us a wide vision of the new Microsoft and the #FutureOfSharePoint. It feels fresh; it feels right; it feels like we’re taking a wild ride together.

What were the big stories coming out of today’s event (which fell on a date with a science fiction theme from some other movie)?

Well, to me, the bullet points are:

  • SharePoint is alive and kicking – working out for a long marathon run. More than 200,000 organizations use SharePoint today, and an extraordinary community of more than 50,000 partners and 1 million developers make up a $10 billion solutions ecosystem around SharePoint.
  • The heart of SharePoint is the documents that make our work, work. But rather than looking for the files you need, those files will find you. On almost any device – any time.
  • The modern intranet has evolved, and Microsoft is out ahead of it. The new mobile SharePoint app, the new SharePoint home page, and new modern team sites may well be ahead of the market. Many organizations will take years to catch up to what Microsoft has on offer.
  • SharePoint 2016 went to General Availability today, meaning it’s available in most sales channels.  That in itself is news but not unexpected. We heard more today about what SharePoint 2016 really is: a springboard to the future.
  • Security, security, security – This stuff fails to excite me, though I know it is exceedingly important to many.

The SharePoint Framework

It probably won’t surprise you to hear the single most exciting thing to me about today’s announcements is the new SharePoint Framework. One of the best things about this new development option is that it’s additive: it doesn’t replace anything or make anything obsolete. If you’re a server-side developer, you’re not losing anything. If you’ve invested in the Add-in model, you can still make hay with that. But if you’re like me and have seen how your clients’ or customers’ faces light up when they see well-built client-side functionality, then you can walk with pride now. What the new SharePoint Framework does is elevate JavaScript development on top of SharePoint to a first class citizen.

I was ecstatic to see an early iteration of the SharePoint Framework early this year at a Developer Kitchen (DevKit to insiders) in Redmond. What we put our hands on and built things with was the culmination of a journey I’ve had a lot of fun making. The ability to use JavaScript on top of SharePoint has always been there. What’s happened is that the general view of that approach has gone from ridicule to cautious interest to outright excitement. The SharePoint Framework is the right next step.

At the DevKit, senior members of the SharePoint Product Group – like Vesa Juvonen, Chakkaradeep “Chaks” Chandran, Luca Bandinelli, Dan Kogan, and many more –  worked side by side with us to understand the warts of the new approach, taking away notes on ways to fix it. The DevKit was no holds barred – when they didn’t have an answer, they said so; when they wanted to see if we had better ideas, they asked. They didn’t have all the answers then, and they probably don’t now. I actually think that’s a great thing for a few reasons:

  1. They realize that the Framework will evolve, and they want it to evolve based on our input and feature requests.
  2. Monolithic thinking is gone. The SharePoint Product Group will be adding new bits and bobs fast.
  3. The Product Group will be using the SharePoint Framework to build out new “experiences” themselves. No more “secret” tools like in the past – they will feel the pain of any issues right along with us. “In fact, we have built the new experiences for our new mobile app, SharePoint Online and OneDrive for Business, including the new document library and list experiences, using the SharePoint Framework.”
  4. The Framework is framework-agnostic. It’s designed to support today’s hot development frameworks like KnockoutJS, AngularJS, and ReactJS. Because it is agnostic, the next shiny new framework that comes along should work just fine, too.

This is going to be the future of SharePoint, without abandoning the past. What it does is legitimize client-side development to a level that hasn’t been possible before. We’ll have enterprise-grade tooling to build client-side Web Parts and full scale solutions we’ve never had before. Even if you’ve been doing client-side development already and have a reliable set of methods (as I do), you’ll appreciate the new focus and will be able to take advantage of it gradually.

We’ll have a page and part model that allows us to “take over” as much as we need. I expect many of you will simply build new client-side Web Parts. Others will build full Single Page Applications using the SharePoint Framework. We’ll have several app “shapes” we can use to build even more robust solutions.

As I said, we get new tooling, including a new client-side SharePoint Workbench to test our work. The SharePoint Framework will come out of the gate with many of the features we need, with more coming all the time. Remember, the SharePoint Product Group has committed to use the SharePoint Framework to build new features into SharePoint. If it doesn’t work for them – and thus us – they will fix it. We’ve never had that level of development parity before.

We get a canvas that is an evolution of the existing Web Part Zone. Within that canvas, we can take over the entire thing, or just parts of it. (You’ll recognize the canvas from the Delve Blog experience.) Microsoft takes care of the chrome and the services we need to make the components on the canvas sing, including the Data Broker, Caching, Authentication, and Telemetry. That’s right – we can even tap into the same telemetry engine that Microsoft uses so that we can understand how our solutions are being used. We even get responsive design right out of the box from the canvas. We need to be sure to build our stuff correctly to take care of that responsive nature, but we don’t need to set up extra stuff for that responsiveness.

We get a new property panel that’s the evolution of the Tool Pane in existing Web Parts. We can add our own properties and functionality to the property panel based on what we are building – all with commonly known client-side tools.

Speaking of tools, there are some pieces of this that many current SharePoint client-side developers probably aren’t using. There WILL be a learning curve, but it will be worth it. People who already know how to do web development – separate from SharePoint – will probably know at least some of these tools; others are new:

  • Yeoman for initial application setup
  • Visual Studio Code (you can probably insert your favorite IDE here at some point) and later Visual Studio
  • NodeJS to give us a local JavaScript development environment
  • NPM to grab existing open source packages
  • TypeScript to bring real typing to the JavaScript experience. We can also use plain old JavaScript if we’re more comfortable there. (I find that C# developers like TypeScript because it gives them the comfort of “true” classes.)
  • Gulp to build our applications, package them, and deploy them to our own CDNs
  • SharePoint Workbench for testing

From my experience at the DevKit, some of this is still a little rough around the edges, but I expect that it’s becoming more polished on a daily basis. Remember, this isn’t that unfriendly Microsoft of the past – they are shipping improvements weekly based on our input and requests. We’re going to be on this ride together, and it’s going to be really fun.

There’s plenty more to read about the SharePoint Framework and more in the official posts from today’s event on the Office Blog:

As Jeff Teper said in one of the posts coming out of today’s event: The future starts today.

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You can view Marc's original blog: Microsoft’s May 4 SharePoint Announcements and Client Side Development Futures #FutureOfSharePoint 

Learn more about the topics in this article and more at Unity Connect Online, June 20-23, 2016. Marc will be a speaker at that free event. Sign up today!

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