New SharePoint development model triggers hopes, questions

ISVs and enterprise developers ponder new opportunities created by a revamping of the SharePoint platform

SharePoint's new application development model has piqued the interest of ISVs and enterprise developers who create applications for Microsoft's enterprise collaboration server.

The new platform, consistent with Web application standards, is designed to simplify and make more flexible and secure the creation and deployment of applications for the on-premise and cloud versions of SharePoint 2013, due in the first quarter next year.

For the existing 700,000 SharePoint developers, this represents a new world order that offers attractive opportunities but also raises concerns.

The new model lowers the bar for the skills and knowledge required to build SharePoint applications. In theory, anyone able to build a standard Web application is now a SharePoint developer. There is no longer a need to learn how to create specific client- or server-side SharePoint code.

Competition could thus become more heated for SharePoint ISVs, which cater to a huge market -- there are about 135 million SharePoint end users.

Along with the democratization of the platform, Microsoft is introducing an application store where commercial developers will be able to feature and, if they want, sell their software. The 2013 edition of the Office suite also uses this new app model and store.

For SharePoint, this represents a big change from the traditional enterprise software sales approach of building custom applications for customers or selling licenses for "shrink-wrapped" applications directly or via system integrator partners.

Quest, a SharePoint ISV recently acquired by Dell, is in a group of developers who have been working with Microsoft to build the first wave of SharePoint 2013 applications.

"We're pioneers putting flags in virgin territory here," said Chris McNulty, Quest's SharePoint general manager.

McNulty said he is excited about the new model, but that his company is trying to figure out which of its more than 20 SharePoint applications will be good fits for the new app store.

That's because it's not yet clear to him whether the store will be populated primarily by tools for individual employees, or by traditional enterprise-type applications, or both.

"It remains to be seen which applications will make sense," he said. "I'm not sure the app store will be the perfect home for every single thing we do."

At the recently concluded SharePoint Conference 2012 in Las Vegas, McNulty spoke with a number of fellow ISVs and heard a common theme. "No one wants to be the one vendor with a $15,000 application in an app store littered with $5 and $10 apps," he said.

Microsoft will not force developers to sell their SharePoint 2013 applications in the store. They can feature them in the store and include a link to their own Web storefront, for example, or simply market them independently.

Microsoft is also keeping the existing model of building applications.

"That's still there. We're not taking that away. You can still use it and we've even extended it in places," said Richard Riley, a Microsoft SharePoint director. "But now we have this new approach, which is all Web-based."

Nintex, which has been developing SharePoint applications for about 10 years, has also been working with Microsoft on the new app dev model's first wave of applications and is excited that its Nintex Workflow application will not only run on SharePoint on premise, but also on SharePoint Online.

"I'm grateful this new model exists. It gives us a lot of options," said Mike Fitzmaurice, Nintex vice president of technology. Nintex didn't even attempt to port its application to SharePoint Online before because it found the developer platform for it "incredibly limited."

Enterprise developers also came to the conference to get up to speed on the SharePoint 2013 app dev model. Lorie Hobart, an applications systems engineer at Wells Fargo, said her division, which is in charge of the bank's physical facilities, like its buildings and offices, recently moved to SharePoint 2010 but is looking ahead at what might be possible with the new version.

"My group is looking to create our own SharePoint environment to use more of what's available and build more user-friendly applications," Hobart said.

For example, it'd be ideal to create a data warehouse to house data from SAP and other line-of-business applications so that her group's end users could tap into it using their main work tools, like Excel and SharePoint, she said.

Kaveh Eshghi, a .Net developer at Black Ninja Software, was also at the conference and said it seems to him the development and deployment process has become easier, but it wasn't clear to him whether it would be a good fit for his company's work.

"So far, what they've shown us are really basic and simple things, but what happens when you're doing more complicated things? Will that be supported?" he said. "Most of the stuff we work on is more advanced and difficult."

In a blog post in July, Microsoft addressed this question, saying "the new models don't necessarily support everything the previous models did, and there will be many solutions that you won't be able to port over to the new models. This is one of the many reasons we will continue to support those existing solutions as well."

Eshghi hopes the app store will not be "saturated" with a lot of lightweight widget-type applications, making it difficult for enterprise applications to be found.

Greg Moser, a SharePoint architect at Magenic Technologies, attended the conference in part to become acquainted with the new app dev model and said it will be a learning curve for his company, which develops custom SharePoint applications for its customers.

"It's a big change for traditional SharePoint developers who are used to the server-side tools," he said.

Magenic will have to determine how well this new model will fit in with its business and its focus, as well as with its customer needs. "That's a lot of unknowns but it's also exciting, and it makes a lot of sense now with the cloud focus of Microsoft and of many other software providers," he said.

The company doesn't do shrink-wrapped applications, but the app store could steer it in that direction, by giving it access to a potentially massive audience and new source of revenue, he said. "I'm sure it's something my company's management is considering," Moser said.

Quest's McNulty sounded a similar note. Even if Quest decides the SharePoint store isn't a good fit for all its existing applications, it sees an opportunity to use the store to move into new markets by creating new applications based on the application store demand and type of customers, two elements McNulty expects will evolve and change as the store grows.

"The market is going to form the view and we need to stay aligned with the way it's going to go," he said.

Quest's first application for the store is a new one called Social Hub, which integrates social media content and feeds from services like LinkedIn and Twitter within SharePoint. "The process of creating Social Hub taught us a lot about this new app model," he said.

Now that the SharePoint app dev model is based on standard Web technologies like HTML, CSS3, REST and JavaScript, the SharePoint platform is getting the attention of new ISVs.

One example is HelloFax, a San Francisco startup that created versions of its e-faxing and e-signature applications for SharePoint 2013, an effort it wouldn't have considered doing for previous editions of the Microsoft product.

"We don't have a SharePoint developer on staff. None of our developers has a Microsoft certification of any type," said Joel Andren, head of business development and marketing at HelloFax.

It took HelloFax less than three weeks to adapt the applications for SharePoint 2013, and it did it all in JavaScript. "We would have never built a SharePoint application under the old framework," he said.

The applications, which so far have appealed mostly to "prosumers" -- individual professionals -- now have a good chance of attracting an enterprise audience they haven't been exposed to, Andren said.

"This opens us up to a new group of people who can use our service," he said.

Juan Carlos Perez covers enterprise communication/collaboration suites, operating systems, browsers and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Juan on Twitter at @JuanCPerezIDG.

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