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Why the future of SharePoint could be dismal

Microsoft SharePoint dominated the industry back in its prime. Cloud file-sharing competitors, however, may force some difficult SharePoint rip-and-replace decisions.

As users begin to see the expansive, monolithic SharePoint as a lumbering dinosaur and products such as Slack, Basecamp and their cohorts as leaner, meaner creatures, the future of SharePoint could be in jeopardy.

Microsoft SharePoint thrived in its heyday, surviving an entire generation of imitators. SharePoint was essentially a Swiss Army knife platform: content management system (CMS), collaboration suite and simple website generator, all in one. It became the in-house communications hub of choice and grew meaningfully with each iteration.

It offered fast, simple and cheap means to spin up public-facing sites. And it pushed online teaming forward in huge leaps, long before the world realized that online teaming was the way to go.

But one generation later, post-SharePoint collaboration platforms are gaining notoriety of their own.

The decline of SharePoint

An inherent problem from the start was SharePoint's need for care and feeding; it requires considerable resources and overhead to deploy successfully in many organizations. Small businesses could benefit from the free or cheap versions of SharePoint, but larger enterprises had to sustain the program with years of maintenance, versioning pain and constant hardware upgrades.

The birth of the cloud exacerbated this problem. For many organizations, the maintenance costs of on-premises SharePoint outweighed the subscription fees of SharePoint in the cloud, and it didn't migrate quietly. To this day, many large SharePoint deployments are hybrids.

To make matters worse for the future of SharePoint, Microsoft has been steadily stripping away SharePoint On-Premises features for five years and has deprecated public-facing functionality altogether, forcing those companies committed to it to seek refuge with third-party vendors.

Where does SharePoint stand in the market?

The market pushes back against SharePoint because the all-in-one approach has become unnecessary.

The market pushes back against SharePoint because the all-in-one approach has become unnecessary. Today, it's not a big deal for organizations to have separate collaboration tools, CMSes and easy web app deployment utilities. The increased connectivity of everything, coupled with increasingly universal security paradigms, makes it simple to select the right tool for the right job, rather than compromising on functionality to save time and money.

SharePoint seldom makes any top 10 or 20 lists for collaboration software anymore. The names most frequently seen include Slack, Workplace, Samepage, Wrike, Basecamp, Trello, Workfront, Jira and Jive. And, ironically, SharePoint now competes with its own little sibling, Microsoft Teams.

SharePoint fares a little better in the content management market simply because there's less competition. Still, products such as Joomla, Drupal, HubSpot, Magento, WordPress, Squarespace and Sitecore lead the market.

SharePoint was a leading pioneer of easy access content management, but the migration of apps from local servers to the internet has blocked its forward path. Now, content management for online apps and services is more popular than it ever was on premises in the enterprise.

sharepoint on-prem vs. online deployment
SharePoint Online's capabilities could make or break the product's future.

SharePoint developer woes

That leaves SharePoint's ability to generate fully functional websites with a few clicks, bundling in all the administration, security and widgetry upfront. This was genius, because developers could create and manage sites of all kinds -- and collections of sites -- with incredible ease, offering a good 80% of the functionality desired.

It was the other 20% that became the problem. Microsoft has always offered a strong bank of web parts to customize SharePoint sites, but organizations that went all-in inevitably had to code new web parts from scratch and became critically dependent on that functionality, its maintenance and a viable migration path as technology rolled forward. Here is where many SharePoint deployments are now stranded.

The competition here is far greater and more insurmountable. At the lean-and-mean level, there's an endless parade of website builders for low-end use. At the enterprise level, it's difficult to surpass Salesforce Lightning.

The SharePoint issue in this domain is a Microsoft problem in general. Since the company committed heavily to the object-oriented development paradigm two decades ago and proceeded with many years of .NET-based technology, it's almost impossible for it to reverse course and go with a lighter, more convenient framework.

For many years, SharePoint developers have modified custom SharePoint sites by means of JavaScript injection, embedding code in script editor and content editor web parts. Two years ago, Microsoft introduced SharePoint Framework, a well-intentioned front-end development toolkit that made server-side JavaScript irrelevant.

And on top of all of that, mobile apps have killed the classic SharePoint site format completely. It's nearly impossible to get that many controls onto a mobile device screen.

The future of SharePoint and its legacy

Despite its issues, SharePoint On-Premises still endures. When Microsoft realized that the thousands of hybrid deployments out there weren't going anywhere, it wisely back-propagated its SharePoint Online features to its On-Premises parent. That will keep many SharePoint shops happy for years.

But the future of SharePoint is limited. The product is bundled into Office 365 and is therefore both cheap and convenient as an enterprise commitment. But the days of large-scale SharePoint build-outs for collaboration and content management are probably over. Newer products are often just as flexible, relatively inexpensive and don't require .NET expertise for complex customizations.

Even so, the business world owes SharePoint a huge debt of gratitude. It took the creation of sites, the management of resources and the configuration of security and user profiles out of the IT department and onto the office floor. All of enterprise technology now reflects the vision that SharePoint pioneered.

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