Six Things to Know About the Newly Announced SharePoint Framework

Today at The Future of SharePoint event in San Francisco Microsoft made several important announcements and released quite a bit of information. Without a doubt, the new SharePoint Framework was the biggest bombshell. As a longtime SharePoint MVP and founder of an ISV that sells SharePoint add-ins and tools, I was fortunate to be in Redmond early in the process and more recently to offer feedback. In fact, I and my associate, fellow MVP Dan Attis, actually got to spend a few days playing with the new bits at a recent Dev Kitchen in exchange for our feedback. Here are my top six big picture thoughts on the new stuff.

#1: You Are Not Screwed

One thing that was immediately noticeable in my recent interactions with the SharePoint team is that they are excited. They believe in this stuff and they want to share their new awesomeness with you. They think you’ll love it as they do! For many of us though, the most likely initial reaction is to be very disturbed. It’s the kind of feeling I imagine a homeowner gets when she receives the Notice of Eminent Domain for the road widening that will destroy her front yard.

So, the first thing you need to know is that the existing UI upon which your house stands on is not scheduled to be bulldozed. SharePoint 2016 is not shipping with the new experience. The features it does ship with reach the end of mainstream support in 2021 and extended support in 2026. Those dates represent the earliest possible end of support.

But what about SharePoint Online?

There as well, you can expect to be able to use the current experience for a long time to come. The hybrid story depends upon it, but more importantly Microsoft has huge customers that are in the process of moving to SharePoint Online from on-prem environments based on the current UI.

In fact, if you have significant investments in custom solutions based on the current UI, you should be feeling a sense of relief. Most such solutions have some level of dependency on UI things Microsoft has said should not be depended upon and we all live with some level of fear that we will wake up one day to find one of the dependencies changed and our solution is broken. Microsoft’s new approach makes this much less likely.

The only reason to be concerned is if you are an ASP.Net Web Forms developer who hasn’t made moves to learn modern web development – in which case it is well past time you hit the books. I promise that it is easier than what you are doing now which is why the rest of us have moved on.

#2: It Restores a Key Value Proposition of SharePoint for SharePoint as a Platform

A big reason for SharePoint’s success is that it is based on ASP.Net Web Forms. Ten years ago, a big chunk of enterprise web developers used ASP.Net as their primary tool. This meant that SharePoint development was pretty approachable to many enterprise developers. Since then though, times have changed. New developers aren’t learning ASP.Net Web Forms. What was a big strength has now become a big weakness and traditional SharePoint development skills are niche skills in today’s job market.

This is a problem for everyone in SharePoint land that needs developers including Microsoft. There are people working as developers on the SharePoint platform who were not old enough to use the kitchen stove when ASP.Net Web Forms came out!

The new SharePoint Framework means that SharePoint development is now in step with mainstream web development once again, except this time you have a lot more choices. It also matters less what choices you make because the framework offers a better way to isolate your solution while also being as deeply integrated as is required.

Furthermore, the new framework embraces the fact that you need the ability to participate in the page’s real DOM. It no longer forces the use of things like iframes and weird URLs. You don’t need to be clever or go against the grain as is often required now to build the types of customizations required by the business you are in.

#3: Open Processes Work Better

I’ve been focused on SharePoint for a decade and I’ve been an MVP for the last five years. For most of that time what Microsoft intended to deliver was completely set in stone by the time anyone outside the SharePoint team knew what was coming. As a stakeholder, the best you could do was complain loudly in hopes that the thing will be better in three years when the next version comes out. In some areas, the Office development teams have fully embraced open source software and open development. In this case they opened up on the core platform for the first time and got feedback at several points in the process. I think the result will be much closer to ‘good’ out of the gate than I had previously come to expect because this time around I’ve actually seen them change their minds based on feedback from outside their own team!

I admire the SharePoint team for how far they have come in this regard. Opening yourself up to criticism is not easy. Personally, I hate it.

I could sense the stress at the Dev Kitchen. It must have been terrifying for each of them. At dinner on the last night, after what was clearly a successful event I could sense the relief. They’d deliberately put themselves through the wringer and survived, but they all looked like they were going to fall asleep!

Make no mistake – it is still early. The first releases of this stuff are guaranteed to have holes and annoying flaws, but things should improve quickly because…

#4: The Biggest Issue with Modern SharePoint as a Platform is Being Fixed

In my opinion, the single biggest factor with the limited success of sandbox solutions and the first versions of the app/add-in model was not that each lacked or blocked functionality that was easily accessible in farm solutions. No, the biggest issue with modern SharePoint as a platform is that the SharePoint development team did not use either model themselves. They had no real skin in the game and no internal incentive to fix what was always somebody else’s problem.

The SharePoint Framework does not just align SharePoint development with modern web development. It also more closely aligns the SharePoint development team with the developers who are customizing SharePoint. Unless they make a habit of cheating, the really big flaws are going to get fixed.

#5: Microsoft Needs Your Help

All that said, there is still some cause for concern. The document library preview release left many scratching their heads. The fact that they dropped something like into first release that without even putting it on the roadmap was hard to understand. And the absence of support for fundamental features we and PnP rely upon such as script custom actions or jsLink was just dumb.

Please note that I know dumb when I see it. As a very experienced and well-respected software developer and business owner I work in dumb like other artists work in clay or oil.

As an outsider it’s fun to speculate where that sort of dumb comes from. Is there a powerful manager that hates PnP and the rest of us so much that they would withhold a couple key lynchpins to see it fail? That would make a great story, but still, it is hard to believe one person could generate that amount of dumb. It probably required a whole team!

I believe that, for a long time, the SharePoint team generally thought that the use of either of these missing features was a hack that should be discouraged because script injection was bad and therefore they were bad. Perhaps now that SharePoint is embracing script injection people still subconsciously want to kill those features but don’t realize their ‘flaws’ are now seen as virtues. This a sort of diffuse cloud of dumb that is common in groups with a long history even where all of the individuals are very smart.

Or maybe the dumb wasn’t dumb at all. Maybe it’s the people focused on building the new document library had a narrow focus that didn’t include any integration scenarios.

Whatever the reason, feedback is to dumb as sunshine is to nasty germs. Their development process is now built to generate lots of feedback before delivering and act upon it. You can help by getting involved and giving lots of feedback in the public Yammer network and on SharePoint’s User Voice page.

Speaking of User Voice and the missing document library features…

#6: It’s not Vaporware

The Dev Kitchen I attended had several accomplished SharePoint development experts, but it also met a good number of people from ISVs who didn’t have much, if any, experience working with SharePoint. I saw people working in OSX, Linux, and Windows. There were a number of scripted hands on labs, but we also had free time to implement our own solutions. Over the course of three days I saw several really impressive samples from this diverse bunch of people.

As for myself, I took a moderately complex sample that uses AngularJS and Bootstrap for pluggable components and wrapped it in the new stuff. It took very little time, and the end result worked in both the current UI and in the new UI. I should probably mention that I was pretty unlucky and was in pain from a kidney stone during much of the event! Even in my diminished and pitiful state I was able to work completely outside the script and it worked!