Showcasing the Future at the Microsoft SharePoint Virtual Summit

Sharepoint's Virtual Summit
General Manager for Office 365 Seth Patton speaks at the SharePoint virtual summit in Redmond, WA.

Microsoft’s SharePoint Virtual Summit wrapped up earlier today, where the future of the connected workplace was showcased by highlighting many of the exciting updates coming to SharePoint and OneDrive over the next few months.

The event focused mainly on features coming to SharePoint Online in Office 365, beginning now and spread over the summer. That being said, Microsoft also announced another Feature Pack for SharePoint Server 2016, which will bring exciting new functionality on-premises later this year as well as a new version of SharePoint Server after 2017.

Rackspace was thrilled to be invited by Microsoft to participate in the filming of the virtual summit at the Microsoft headquarters in Redmond, Washington.

Two Rackspace Microsoft MVPs, myself and Jason Himmelstein, were able to see the announcements live and speak with the Microsoft SharePoint product team about the ways Office 365 is evolving into a universal toolkit for collaboration. Here are some of our favorite new features covered during the summit:

SharePoint Communication Sites

New SharePoint communication sites preview

The most visually striking feature announced at the summit was the new SharePoint communication sites, which allow you to create beautiful sites meant to be viewed throughout your organization. While SharePoint team sites are meant for collaborating to get things done in your specific work group, communication sites are meant to reach a broader audience across your entire company.

It’s important to note that communication sites aren’t meant to fully replace the classic SharePoint publishing site concept at this time, though this release could be the first step along that path. Just as many of the important functions in SharePoint have been receiving modern facelifts over the past couple years in Office 365, we now have the start of modern intranet portals with communication sites.

It’s also evident that Microsoft studied a lot of good intranet portals and took many common, often custom-developed elements and built them into this SharePoint release. Microsoft focused on making these features simple to use and responsive with modern design techniques, making it much easier for companies to create nice-looking intranet communication sites without needing custom development work.

The communication sites that were demoed at the summit also showed off a lot of interesting new functionality. At the top of the communication sites page, you’ll see a hero web part that can span the page edge-to-edge, filling it with a grid of beautiful photos or text. You can use this function to highlight important events or announcements across your organization.

Under that, you’ll see a mix of single and multi-column content including new and recently released web parts like the modern news web part, Microsoft Stream video web part and a people web part for highlighting team members that are important to your organization.

Improvements were also made for copying and pasting tables from Microsoft Word into a modern web format on the page. Visitors can even comment on the page to give feedback to site owners and to have online discussions relevant to the content of the page.

SharePoint approval workflows and PowerApps 

Sharepoint Approval Workflows
A preview of PowerApps in SharePoint

One of the most common collaboration scenarios in SharePoint has always been approval workflows. At the summit, Microsoft announced an enhancement to modern document libraries that allows anyone to easily start an approval workflow over email.

The feature is powered by the recently released Microsoft Flow functionality, but you won’t have to ever open Microsoft Flow to wire anything up, the functionality will just be surfaced for you in SharePoint.

Another popular scenario in SharePoint is the ability to create intelligent forms without having to develop custom code using the old InfoPath product.

While InfoPath hasn’t seen an update in a while, Microsoft has been working on a new method for information workers to simply create small interactive no-code solutions, known as Microsoft PowerApps.

In the near future, Microsoft will allow users to create custom PowerApps based on form experiences directly inside of SharePoint. The demo showed the PowerApps appearing in a pane on the right-hand side of the SharePoint page, and displayed several useful interactive forms.

This could shape up to be a very useful way to create SharePoint forms that store your team data in SharePoint lists or in a variety of other data sources without developing custom code.

Feature Pack 2 for SharePoint Server 2016

While all these enhancements are great for Office 365 and SharePoint Online, what can you look forward to if you’re running the on-premises SharePoint Server 2016?

In the near future, Microsoft announced they will be releasing a second Feature Pack for SharePoint Server 2016, which will allow developers to create modern web parts using the SharePoint Framework (SPFx).

While this might not immediately stand out if you aren’t a developer, it’s actually a pretty big step forward for companies currently running SharePoint Server and looking to move to Office 365 in the cloud or even a hybrid configuration in the near future.

One of the biggest hurdles for companies moving from on-premises SharePoint to Office 365 is their legacy custom developed code, often referred to as Farm Solutions in SharePoint.

By developing web parts for SharePoint using the SPFx, companies can ensure their custom code will transition seamlessly to the cloud. It’s also worth noting that most of the modern experiences in SharePoint Online in Office 365 are built by Microsoft using the SharePoint Framework, so perhaps this Feature Pack paves the way for a future version of SharePoint Server that includes the modern experiences we see in Office 365. 

And more!

Microsoft showed off a lot of other cool features at the summit, including the ability to connect existing SharePoint sites in Office 365 to Groups and enhanced abilities to add navigation and pages to Groups as well as Microsoft Teams.

A new, modern and reimagined SharePoint admin experience was also demoed, and it should be quite useful for SharePoint administrators. In Office 365, they showed an enhanced personalized search box powered by Delve that automatically surfaced information about company expertise, skills, interests, and projects that are relevant to the user.

There were also several enhancements announced for OneDrive including the ability to share files seamlessly from Windows Explorer or the Finder in MacOS as well as a feature called Files On-Demand that allows users to save space on their drives by leveraging documents in the cloud directly from Windows 10.

Overall, the announcements made at the summit are even more proof that Microsoft is committed to reinventing SharePoint as a modern toolkit for collaboration. The new features should start rolling out to Office 365 tenants between now and the Microsoft Ignite conference in late September.

Corporate Vice President for Microsoft OneDrive, SharePoint and Office Jeff Teper speaks to the audience at the SharePoint virtual summit.

Let Rackspace manage your Office 365 or SharePoint servers. Our team of specialists will partner with you to help better plan, migrate, set up, administer and consume Office 365 and SharePoint across your enterprise. You will have confidence knowing our award-winning, round-the-clock Fanatical Support is just a phone call or chat away.

Find out more about Office 365 support from Rackspace at our website.

Randy Drisgill is a Product Engineering Manager for the Cloud Office team at Rackspace. He has more than a decade of experience developing, designing and implementing web technologies for clients ranging from small businesses to Fortune 500 companies. Randy is a frequent speaker at events such as Microsoft’s Ignite, TechEd and SharePoint Conference and is co-author of the books, “SharePoint 2013 Branding and User Interface Design” and “Professional SharePoint 2010 Branding and User Interface Design” from Wrox. You can find Randy on Twitter as @Drisgill and at blog.drisgill.com.

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