Summary: As a SharePoint Alternative product, we like to keep an eye on the intranet trends happening within our industry. Microsoft has been making a lot of changes this year, so we got our product manager here at Intranet Connections to break it down and explain what’s happening this year.

As the Product Manager for Intranet Connections, a SharePoint alternative, I watch intranet trends in the business environment very closely. There is an 800-pound gorilla in the room, whose name is Microsoft SharePoint, and that gorilla has been making significant moves in the last year:

  •  SharePoint 2016 no longer has a “free” Foundation edition
  • SharePoint Framework opens up SharePoint development to non-Microsoft technologies
  • SharePoint’s Communication Sites directly attacks 3rd party SharePoint-Addon Intranet products

Let’s breakdown these changes, and see how it represents a shift in the industry.

Free SharePoint Foundation Edition Ended

SharePoint Foundation allowed organizations to deploy a limited version of SharePoint for “free”, provided that each user was running Windows. Other editions required purchasing a one-time upfront software license and a license (CAL) for each user. With Foundation, what Microsoft lost in revenue, they gained in stifling competition and locking in IT departments into their technology stack. SharePoint 2013 is the last release which includes a Foundation edition. This is part of Microsoft’s push to cloud. SharePoint is now included with Business Office 365 subscriptions.

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SharePoint Framework: Open Source Tooling

Previous to SharePoint Framework, developers who extended SharePoint for their organization’s unique needs had to use the Microsoft’s software development tools and servers. Within the IT department, this created expertise and familiarity with Microsoft technology, resulting in a reluctance to move to another intranet platform. SharePoint Framework, however, adds support for “open-source tooling”. For the first time, SharePoint developers could extend SharePoint using non-Microsoft technology. Microsoft’s acknowledgment that they shouldn’t limit developers to their technology is a major shift. With shrinking IT departments, and new developers less willing to accept vendor-imposed constraints, Microsoft had to make this change to ensure there is a constant pool of qualified developers to support SharePoint.

SharePoint Communication Software: First Volley Against Intranet Add-On Products

This an over simplification, but the SharePoint administration, in general, has been designed for technical staff (aka. The IT department), not end users. With minimal changes, SharePoint does well as document management software but has historically lacked many intranet features. This created a market for 3rd party SharePoint Add-On Intranet products (as well as SharePoint alternatives like Intranet Connections). Unlike SharePoint alternatives, these products are installed on top of the SharePoint, providing modern intranet features that are lacking in SharePoint. Easy to configure, attractive home pages are a key feature for these products. ‘Communication Sites’ is Microsoft’s first attempt to close this gap and follows the intranet trends of giving end users more control over their digital workplace.

Communication Sites are really limited in their first release, and not a replacement for SharePoint Add-On intranets. However, I believe it’s evidence that Microsoft is acknowledging that they can no longer cater to just the IT departments. With cloud applications, end-users are selecting and implementing software in the business and bypassing the IT department entirely. Early versions of Microsoft products are often lambasted by industry experts, but get stronger and stronger with each release. If Microsoft continues in this direction, I expect to see continuous improvements to Communication Sites. The answer to the question, “What’s the difference between intranet vs SharePoint?” will become a lot less clear.

What does this all mean? Microsoft’s SharePoint strategy is shifting from a shaping strategy to an adaptive strategy (Your Strategy Needs a Strategy) because the business environment has changed.

In a shaping strategy, an organization can change the business environment by using their clout to orchestrate changes. For example, Microsoft has built up and the entire ecosystem of SharePoint resellers and consultants by not directly selling or supporting SharePoint to the vast majority of customers. By giving away SharePoint Foundation for free, they locked IT departments into Microsoft technology. Today, the business environment is much less malleable for Microsoft than it used to be.

  • Per-user, on-going subscription revenue is much more profitable than one-time licenses
  • Selection and purchasing of software no longer purely the domain of the IT department
  • Web developers refuse to be locked into one organization’s technology stack
  • Intranet trends of end users want more control over their digital workplace

These changes require Microsoft to take a more adaptive strategy, where speed counts. I expect Microsoft to be much faster in releasing changes to SharePoint. Instead of their typical 3-year cycle, I expect that Microsoft will make significant changes to SharePoint throughout the year, and these changes will be geared towards end-users much more so than IT departments. For instance, many SharePoint experts complain about the lack of governance features in Communication Sites and lack of integration with Team Sites, but most end-users don’t care about that. I believe Microsoft will continue to advance Communication Sites independently from Team Sites, catering to the Office 365 crowd who have never managed SharePoint before.

How does this affect SharePoint Alternatives?

Unlike SharePoint Add-On intranet products, Intranet Connections has always been a 100% alternative to SharePoint (though we do integrate with Active Directory). We have seen an uptick in sales from customers who need a long-term on-premise solution, and are unhappy with Microsoft’s decision to stop supporting Foundation past SharePoint 2013. The need for on-premise can be due to regulations, security requirements, or simply an economic decision (see our cost comparison between cloud and on-premise).

Microsoft’s decision to make SharePoint a more open development platform doesn’t affect our customers because Intranet Connections has always been an out-of-the-box intranet solution. Intranet Connections provides fairly extensible configuration options within the product and has never required in-house developers to support it. In all honesty, this does mean we lose some potential customers who need more flexibility than our product can deliver, but this decision keeps the product simpler for customers who don’t have developer resources.

I do think however, some of our competitors who focus on cloud intranets are going to be facing increasing competition from SharePoint as the feature set for Communication Sites expands. In the cloud, Microsoft is bundling SharePoint with every Office 365 Business Essentials and Premium subscription. I believe Microsoft has bundled SharePoint to keep as much user activity within the Microsoft ecosystem as possible, to project their Office 365 licenses. If history is any indication, when Microsoft bundles software to protect their market (essentially making it free), it’s very hard to survive. Just ask Novell, Netscape, or RealNetworks.

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