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The Rise and Fall of Microsoft SharePoint

I have been working with SharePoint since it was Microsoft Tahoe Server in 2001, and I have a soft spot in my heart for this software.  My company InfoStrat has been a Microsoft SharePoint Gold Partner, and we have implemented SharePoint at small companies, large federal agencies, and many clients in between.  I even wrote a book on SharePoint a long time ago.

SharePoint has risen in popularity over the years and may be more popular than ever today, even as its relevance and importance to Microsoft are declining.  Few products have endured as long as SharePoint, or had so many facets.  SharePoint is so many things -- document management, records management, portal, intranet, collaboration, workflow, search engine, business forms processing, even private social network, business data catalog and business intelligence tool.

Some of these have been quite successful and relatively stable throughout the life of the product. Others have come and gone, or been re-architected. Let's take a closer look at where they stand and how we arrived here:

These are bread and butter SharePoint features that Microsoft has not shifted to another product.

  • document management. Probably the steadiest capability in the product.  For lightweight doc management, including version control, approval workflows, and check-in, check-out capability, SharePoint meets the needs of the majority of businesses.  More intensive document management users will look elsewhere. 
  • intranet. SharePoint provides a quick, easy and inexpensive way to create an intranet.  To the extent that document management is handy along with content management, this is a compelling combination. 

These are viable and important features, but are shifting to Office 365.

  • collaboration. Since SharePoint was released, expectations for collaboration have changed. SharePoint excels for certain types of collaboration, particularly around document creation, but Microsoft is moving collaboration to Office 365 rather than in the confines of SharePoint. Microsoft also created a competitor to Slack called Microsoft Teams which is part of Office 365. 
  • workflow. As I wrote elsewhere, Microsoft has revamped its workflow automation strategy with Microsoft Flow, Azure Logic Apps, and PowerApps, taking a less parochial strategy which includes integration with Dropbox, Twitter, Facebook, MailChimp and other products. 
  • portal. When SharePoint was released, portals were a hot product category that has subsequently faded.  Back then portals were a way to integrate data from multiple, heterogeneous sources into a single web page.  Microsoft used a technology called web parts to accomplish this.  Today Microsoft would like you to make Office 365 the center of your workday, arguably becoming a portal itself. 
  • document storage. In response to DropBox, Microsoft created SkyDrive which was later renamed OneDrive.  Free and paid storage plans are available, and OneDrive is included in Office 365.  If you don't need version control or authoring features of SharePoint, OneDrive is more convenient.  

Nice Try
All these capabilities have been included at one time or another in SharePoint, but are distant followers of competitive products.

  • search engine. Microsoft acquired the FAST search engine for $1.2 billion in 2008 which was added to SharePoint 2010 as a separate enterprise search option.  It was later integrated into SharePoint 2013.  
  • content management. When SharePoint first shipped, Microsoft offered Content Management Server (CMS) as its content management product (nice product name, eh?) for building websites.  When CMS as discontinued, users were advised that some of its features were incorporated in SharePoint, but SharePoint never became a competitive CMS for building your external-facing websites. 
  • records management.  Records management is a specialized form of document management which enforces policies for document retention.  It became more prominent because of provisions in the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 which called for reforms in corporate accountability. Microsoft left full records management capability to third party SharePoint add-ins. 
  • business forms processing. Microsoft made several runs at creating electronic forms, the most well know of which in SharePoint was InfoPath, an XML-based form tool for creation and processing of rich, formatted documents with sophisticated validation.  InfoPath was discontinued after the 2013 version but still supported in SharePoint and Office 365. 
  • private social network. Microsoft acquired Yammer for $1.2 billion (same price as FAST) in 2012, and quickly created a plan for integration or at least co-existence of Yammer and SharePoint 2013.  Yammer is a Facebook clone for restricted audiences such as your company to share posts and other content. 
  • business data catalog. Because SharePoint data is stored in SQL Server, SharePoint could be used as a simpler front end to corporate data and a way to standardize your data model.  This approach has not gained traction, and Microsoft is promoting PowerBI to connect to your data whenerever it may be. 
  • business intelligence tool. SharePoint overlapped with the capabilities now available in PowerBI for dashboards and analysis.  

I don't blame Microsoft for continuing to evolve, or even for shifting its sales emphasis among products in its portfolio. It would have been nice to have a smoother migration path among product versions, but perhaps it was impractical given the amount of refactoring going on under the hood.

As of this writing, Office 365 is the center of the Microsoft business software universe.  SharePoint still lives on in Office 365, but some of its features such as workflow, application integration, and collaboration are shifting away from SharePoint per se. SharePoint may continue in one form or another into the next decade.

Finally, SharePoint is one of the best Microsoft product names ever.  It is unique, memorable, and possible to find meaningful web search results.  Try that with product names such as Team, Sales and Marketing.

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