How SharePoint 2013 Avoids The Vegemite Effect

Microsoft's SharePoint information and application sharing system has frequently suffered from trying to be all things to all people. How does that change in SharePoint 2013, and what cues has it taken from Facebook?

Speaking at Microsoft's Tech Ed Australia 2012 conference on the Gold Coast, Microsoft Office technical product manager Alastair Speirs addressed that issue in front of a sizeable audience on Tuesday afternoon. In contrast to earlier versions, SharePoint 2013 concentrates on being "the new way to work together" in terms of sharing, organising, discovering, building and managing information.

Solutions specialist Will Cornwill expanded on these themes, saying that the social aspects of SharePoint 2013 make it easy to share ideas. Every employee can have their own home page, and use the newsfeed feature to follow issues that are important to them. This "Facebook style approach" lets them follow people, documents, sites and tags, for example to ensure they are notified when a particular document changes.

Previews are displayed for followed sites, and the 'curated content' capability means administrators can promote sites that are of strategic importance such as the organisation's HR site above those the user is actually following. Over time, SharePoint starts to 'understand' what is important to the user, and suggests other things that may be relevant.

SharePoint's Communities feature captures knowledge and make it discoverable. Users can 'like' useful contributions, and a communal 'best reply' status is assigned where appropriate.

"Everything is social in SharePoint 2013... we're treating every object as a social object," said Speirs, emphasising that the idea had been applied in an enterprise context.

The Search function provides previews of results for web pages and -- thanks to Office Web Applications - Office documents. It also allows search for people or conversations instead of content. Spiers pointed out that unlike previous releases, SharePoint 2013 displays results and previews via HTML5, eliminating the page refreshes seen with earlier versions.

Sharing content has been simplified with SkyDrive Pro (an enterprise equivalent of Dropbox and similar services). Just drop a file into the browser window and it uploads either to the SharePoint server or to Office 365 as appropriate. "It's how I wish SharePoint worked all along," said Speirs. Once the file is uploaded, it can then be shared (for viewing only or editing) with specific users. If it is to be shared with everyone in the organisation, simply move it to the 'Shared with Everyone' folder.

Other features include improvements to project management (including task-tracking, a visual timeline of tasks, a to-do list, and a unified task list that doesn't require any coding) and content management. It's now easier to build dynamic sites with SharePoint, and if mainstream web design tools are used, SharePoint 2013 makes it much easier to add the SharePoint-specific code.

The new version makes it easier to protects information assets as it is simple to apply legal holds, retention holds and the like to assets as it uses a logical view rather than a physical view. or example, it is possible to put an in-place hold on particular users' mailboxes. Records management people "love these sorts of tools," said Spiers.

In line with the industry fashion, SharePoint has apps. According to Speirs, "everything's an app" in SharePoint 2013; it's just that some built in, while others are add-ons. These apps are lightweight, being basically XML code telling SP how to consume external applications. While some organisations may allow users to select apps from the public SharePoint App Store, it will probably be more common to limit the selection to a curated collection which may include in-house apps. Multiple apps can be combined into a custom template, which is then published as an app.

SharePoint administrators haven't been forgotten. Office 365 technical specialist Ben Walters pointed out that the SharePoint Administration Center now includes records management settings, search administration (such as setting up search schemas, or displaying search reports), apps management (purchasing, cataloguing, managing licences, managing app permissions, and monitoring use - so you know if it is worth renewing a licence). Spiers noted that some of this functionality is already appearing in Office 365.

Another bonus for administrators and developers is that there is no need to change existing SharePoint sites when you install 2013, as all of the SharePoint 2010 APIs are still included. In Office 365, upgrading to the 2013 version is a one-click process. "I think that's very cool," said Walters.

Visit Gizmodo's TechEd 2012 Newsroom for all the news from the show.

Disclosure: Stephen Withers is attending TechEd 2012 as a guest of Microsoft.

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