What's really new in SharePoint 2016?

With SharePoint 2016, Microsoft is going back to what SharePoint is all about: Easy collaboration, team-driven workflows and simple Intranet publishing. Wait, isn’t that what SharePoint has been doing all along?

microsoft sharepoint 2016
Credit: Microsoft

The SharePoint community has reacted with enthusiasm to Microsoft’s roadmap for SharePoint 2016, even though much of it is familiar to anyone who’s been using SharePoint for a while. It’s so confusingly familiar, in fact, that you may find yourself asking whether that wasn’t what SharePoint already did or wondering what else SharePoint was trying to do.

What’s new in SharePoint 2016

In SharePoint 2016, there’s a straightforward way to create new sites and pick whether they’re a team site for sharing documents or an Intranet site for publishing information. You can also choose who’s a member and mark right away whether the site is for standard documents or more confidential information.

There are mobile apps for iOS and (later in 2016) Android and Windows that show you the sites you’re a member of, SharePoint lists (which many customers have used to build custom apps based on SharePoint) and what other people have been doing on those sites. That’s a big step up from working with SharePoint in a mobile browser or needing a third-party app.

At the SharePoint event on May 4, Microsoft’s Adam Harmetz said the new mobile apps put an Intranet in your pocket. “When you look someone up, you can see who they work with, what their reporting structure is, who they interact with and what documents they’re working on.” The apps will work with SharePoint 2013 as well as 2016, with sites on your own servers and with Office 365.

SharePoint mobile and new look Microsoft

The mobile SharePoint apps pick up the clean new design for SharePoint sites

Creating team sites will soon automatically create an Office 365 group. That’s logical, since making a group already creates a OneNote notebook, a document library and the other things that make up a team site — and they’re all shown in a clean and simple interface. Groups are a fairly new idea, but they feel an awful lot like the ad hoc, user-driven SharePoint of old.

There will be new page publishing tools that let you type straight into placeholders on the Web page and click to format text or insert images, video clips and documents. It’s a simple, visual authoring experience that produces responsive pages that display nicely on tablets and smartphones (something that we consider table stakes in 2016).

Microsoft also made some much-needed improvements to analytics. In addition to the new tenant reports in Office 365, covering statistics like how many Skype meetings, Yammer messages, email exchanges and Office activations have been taking place, there will be site analytics like how many people have looked at specific sites and documents, including on your own servers. There’s also a quick view of activity on a document that you can see inside the document library, which should make it easier to find the documents colleagues are working on.

SharePoint Analytics Microsoft

The new analytics are simple but that’s a step up from nothing at all in SharePoint 2013

SharePoint 2016 also does away with some long-running annoyances like limits on file sizes, length of file names and the characters you can use in file names. Having links to files work even if the file has been renamed or moved, will end a lot of frustration too. Again, it’s hard to believe it took Microsoft so long to fix such simple problems that irritated so many users.

The “new” SharePoint document library interface is actually the OneDrive for Business file management interface, with thumbnail previews and simple ways to search for and share files, as well as the ability to add organizational templates for common documents. It’s taken Microsoft a surprisingly long time to unify these, and do away with the consistent but confusing ribbon interface in favor of a toolbar. Lists get a similar visual refresh, and they will load much better in mobile browsers than the old design (again, that’s something users have come to expect).

Similarly, SharePoint 2016 gets security and compliance features that you might be surprised aren’t already there: document retention and deletion policies and data leakage prevention for sensitive information types like credit card and passport numbers. Those ediscovery and DLP features have been in Office 365 for some time, but you can now search for files with sensitive content across SharePoint Server 2016, SharePoint Online, and OneDrive for Business, as well as use policies to automatically stop them being saved or shared.

Both SharePoint 2016 sites and mobile apps will be manageable through mobile device management (MDM) tools like Intune and AirWatch. You can block all access outside of the corporate network or use conditional access policies that would allow someone to open a document based on both the security of their device and the security level of the document.

Sharing policies will let you choose which domains users can share documents with and, soon, how long documents can be shared (allowing for eDRM features like auto-expiry of time-sensitive documents). More granular policies later this year will give you finer control. Instead of allowing or blocking all access, for example, you could let a user view a document or edit with the Web Office tools but not download it.

At the SharePoint announcement, Microsoft’s Jeff Teper cautioned admins not to overuse those options. “It’s important that the friction of security be commensurate to the value of the document the user is trying to access. If they’re trying to access their personal trip itinerary, don’t make them jump through hoops for it. They won’t appreciate that.”

SharePoint Online is also the latest Office 365 service to get the customer lockbox feature, which ensures that even Microsoft admins don’t get access to your data unless you allow it for troubleshooting a problem, and even then it’s audited and for a limited time. Again, later this year you’ll be able to ‘bring your own key’ to encrypt your documents.

Let SharePoint be SharePoint

If you’re familiar with SharePoint, you’ll know that these features are the core of what SharePoint has always been about. But as Benjamin Niaulin of SharePoint tool vendor Sharegate says, “SharePoint's team sites have not evolved at the same rate that the industry for file storage and collaboration has. Today, people expect it to be easy and quick as well as being mobile. I feel like Microsoft went back to the drawing table to see why people are working with Dropbox and other (in many cases) rogue IT solutions, and then decided to go back to the roots of SharePoint — sites with lists and libraries — and offer a refreshed experience to deliver on the user experience and mobility requested today.”

If that sounds like a less ambitious approach, Niaulin suggests that’s not a bad thing. “SharePoint has often been seen as ‘a platform that can do anything’ and so organizations have sometimes been guilty of using it as a hammer for every nail or problem they are trying to solve. I often hear ‘it's going to solve 80 percent of the problem we have and the other 20 percent we will customize.’ But that doesn't work; you can't tell every team in your organization to work the same way with the same tool. That's why I think Microsoft is making sure SharePoint is great at what it can be great at, instead of trying to have it do everything.”

Chris Johnson, who has worked on both the Office 365 and SharePoint teams at Microsoft, is pleased to see the “focus on core capabilities and bringing SharePoint up to modern Web standards after some years of flailing about.”

“I feel that Microsoft was chasing shiny things at the expense of what made SharePoint great to begin with. Things felt 80 percent done in its Enterprise Content Management and collaboration capabilities, like a theme park that was great for a while but started to age and you couldn’t help but think what could have been if only it had been updated. Competitors like Dropbox showed what a better experience could be like as OneDrive for Business fell further behind.”

Like Exchange, SQL Server and Windows Server, SharePoint was supposed to take advantage of Microsoft’s cloud. New features would be built for the cloud services, tested there and then brought back to the server version that customers install themselves. SharePoint on Office 365 has certainly been evolving and getting new cloud features like Yammer and Delve, as well as “portals” that organize content beyond traditional documents, like video. But SharePoint Server 2016 will be the first time customers see the benefit of that cloud-first development.

“In my view, there hasn’t been much happening in the SharePoint space over the last couple of years,” points out SharePoint MVP Jasper Oosterveld, from Microsoft partner Sparked. “Microsoft had a huge focus on Office 365 and pushing it towards new and existing customers. Yes, SharePoint Online received new features but nothing major.”

The emphasis on cloud makes sense, he insists, and most of the projects Sparked works on involve SharePoint Online. “I totally understood this move because Microsoft wants to keep up with the competition and make Office 365 the platform for innovation and productivity. I love Delve and see the business potential, but there hasn’t been much focus at the core of the SharePoint platform: making collaboration easy.”

“Microsoft committed to keep releasing new SharePoint on-premises a couple years back,” points out Oosterveld; “they are now just more vocal about it.” He’s particularly excited about the promised quarterly feature packs, which should keep SharePoint Server from falling behind SharePoint Online. New features will still appear on SharePoint Online first, but features that can run on premise will move to SharePoint Server regularly. (Don’t expect to see Delve, for example, which uses machine learning and requires a significant amount of infrastructure.)

The new hybrid options will help bridge the gap too. They’re not just about simplifying administration of a mix of local and cloud SharePoint sites. Users will see a single list of the SharePoint and SharePoint Online sites they follow and they can search all those sites at the same time

Beyond the SharePoint 2016 basics

The enthusiastic reaction to SharePoint 2016 isn’t just about refreshing the classic SharePoint Intranet and document sharing features and creating much-needed mobile apps. There’s also a lot of interest in the analytics and intelligence, and in new ways to create apps based on SharePoint sites.

SharePoint Online opens with a new view showing documents and sites you use frequently, and others you might be interested in. This is powered by the same insights from Delve that the mobile apps use to show you relevant documents and sites, as well as analytics for who’s been working with your documents. It sounds simple, but this view could help you get more value out of SharePoint. In most businesses, users will often be members of dozens of different sites but there may be dozens more that are relevant to them that they don’t know about.

SharePoint Online opens with a new view Microsoft

SharePoint 2016 goes back to basics but it also adds intelligence to help users find content and contacts relevant to them

The new Flow service is particularly powerful. This lets you create workflows across SharePoint and services like Dynamics, Salesforce and Slack using a visual, drag and drop interface; you can even turn a SharePoint list into a PowerApp that works on smartphones as well as in the browser, right from the SharePoint Web site.

In addition to these user-focused tools, there’s also a new development model. Although it’s still in development, the SharePoint Framework is what Microsoft is using to build features like the SharePoint mobile apps, so it should offer developers a new level of parity with the tools the SharePoint team uses. In addition, it’s appealing that the SharePoint Framework isn’t a proprietary approach. Instead, it’s a client-side library based on JavaScript that works with common JavaScript tools like Yeoman, Nodejs, NPM and Gulp, and popular frameworks like Angular and React.

Developers who prefer other languages like C#, Swift, Python, Ruby, Java and Objective C will still be able to interact with SharePoint through the Microsoft Graph. Plus, the existing SharePoint development models are still available, and if you rely on options that aren’t supported there’s a classic mode, which should simplify moving to SharePoint 2016.

Ironically, the back-to-basics reset implicit in the emphasis on core SharePoint features in the 2016 release makes the smart new features like Flow and the SharePoint Framework more appealing, because there’s no point building on the clever new options if you’re not confident the core features can keep up with the cloud competition. This approach gives Microsoft a better chance of striking the right balance between bringing SharePoint up to date and pushing forward with new options.

This story, "What's really new in SharePoint 2016?" was originally published by CIO.

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