disc with original Microsoft SharePoint version in 2001

SharePoint at 20: 'SharePoint Is the Same Product'

June 11, 2021 Digital Workplace
David Roe
By David Roe

SharePoint turned 20 this March — March 28 to be precise. It would be hard to find another business technology product that's had as big an impact on the digital workplace as the product that launched 20 years ago. On a superficial level, the version released in 2001 bears little resemblance to the online product now part of Office 365, or even the on-premises version still in use by companies wary of pushing certain types of content to the cloud. 

Microsoft threw a massive (online) party to mark the occasion, with discussions and videos from some of the people instrumental in building the original SharePoint version and those who have contributed to its development in the ensuing two decades. 

In a sense, SharePoint has been around longer than 20 years. While the first platform emerged in 2001, its origins go back to 1997 and the Site Server for content management and websites. Project Tahoe, the working name for the product, was pitched to Bill Gates as early as 1998 as a flexible portal solution which would allow companies to easily find, share and publish information. The product that emerged in January 2001 as a Release Candidate offered seamless knowledge portal integration with the Microsoft Office and Windows operating system productivity desktop environment, which allowed enterprise users to integrate robust document management, search, subscriptions and inline discussions into their document collaboration process. 

If that sounds familiar, it should be. The fundamental idea behind SharePoint today is the same as it was then. It has been a long road though. Keep in mind that in 2001 the "cloud" had yet to become a reality and SharePoint was a single place to store and manage website content. 

The 2007 version is seen as a key milestone in SharePoint's development, as was the emergence of the cloud and Office 365 in 2011, which opened up content collaboration and communication in ways previously impossible. We asked a number of experts what they thought the major milestones were for SharePoint over the last 20 years. Here's what they had to say. 

Ron Cameron
Ron Cameron, CEO, KnowledgeLake

"It’s hard to believe SharePoint is 20 years old. In just one more year, it will be able to legally buy a beer. 

Like most 20-year-olds, SharePoint has evolved and matured, but it has also gone through some growing pains. During the past two decades, SharePoint has become one of the most pervasive business applications on the planet. Microsoft states that SharePoint has 190 million users across 200,000 customer organizations. 

In my opinion, two key points have led to the evolution and continued success of SharePoint:  

The Cloud: The ability for organizations to migrate their on-premises SharePoint deployments to the cloud via Azure or transition to SharePoint Online (via Office 365) has helped extend the value of the platform. From lowering the cost of entry and making it the platform more affordable to small-to-midsize companies, to the ability to scale up or down when needed, to greater cohesion, interoperability and integration with a company existing IT stack, the ability for companies to leverage Azure has been a godsend to many SharePoint customers. 

The SharePoint Ecosystem: SharePoint is an incredibly flexible platform that can be configured to meet specific organizational needs and requirements. However, with great flexibility comes great complexity, and to properly optimize SharePoint’s capacity, a great deal of planning and support is required. This has resulted in the creation of countless modules and add-ons by outside vendors, developers and consulting firms exclusively focused on providing SP support services, and other ancillary tools and services."  

John Mancini
John Mancini, President of Content Results, Former AIIM President 

Twenty years of SharePoint. My goodness how time flies. Two memories highlight for me how SharePoint — and the world — has changed. 

Around the time MOSS (Microsoft Office SharePoint Services) was introduced — 2007 — I convened a group of senior sell-side executives from about 20 “ECM” [editor: enterprise content management] companies. One of the issues we discussed was the impact that MOSS would have on the content management space. The universal conclusion was that while what SharePoint was doing was 'interesting,' it wasn’t 'real' ECM. Keep in mind that this was just before MOSS turned the market on its head, completely changing how end users thought about content management, and what was an acceptable price per seat for these capabilities. So much for predictions! 

The second occurred several times, usually about a year after a new on-premises version of SharePoint was released — think SharePoint 2010 or 2013. Upon release, Microsoft would assume that users would not just walk, but run to deploy the latest version. I would ask users at AIIM seminars 'what version(s) of SharePoint are you on?' Of course, the answer would always come back about 20% the brand-new version — call it version X — and 40% version X-1 and 40% version X-2 with a smattering of WSS still floating around. Demonstrating that in the world of on-premises software, adoption at scale was never an easy thing. 

So, after 20 years, we find ourselves in a quite different SharePoint world. For day-to-day document-based work and collaborative work by knowledge workers, M365 has become the de facto solution. For those who care about automated records management and retention management, M365 has finally delivered on those long-promised SharePoint governance capabilities — IF it is set up properly (a big if for many organizations). For those willing to leave the land of on-premises solutions, migrate information into M365, and go along for the ride as the platform evolves and improves daily, the cloud has changed the game for what 'change' means. 

As the Grateful Dead might say, what a long, strange trip it has been."

Sam Marshall
Sam Marshall, Owner ClearBox Consulting, lead author annual SharePoint intranets in-a-box review

"Much like the web, the underlying technical design has proven a highly enduring one, but the user experience of SharePoint has evolved enormously over its 20 years. At its heart, SharePoint is a database of files accessed through a browser, one which can then show its content as lists in various formats. The multiple ways that you can access those files, and the enormous flexibility for how you display those lists, is the secret sauce of SharePoint’s longevity. 

I see early SharePoint (in its Windows Server guise) as being like a web-based file share. It appealed more to the technically minded for the ability to tweak and code it, much like Lotus Notes — its groupware forerunner — where people would build databases tailored to specific needs. The idea took off, not least because SharePoint was free with Windows Server, but the freedom of SharePoint also tended to create a mess ('SharePoint sprawl'). This led to paid-for Enterprise editions that promised to clean things up with cross-site search and governance. That pattern of introducing chaos and then charging for more features to tidy it up was one that Microsoft profitably repeated over the years! 

SharePoint 2010 (aka MOSS for Microsoft Office SharePoint Server) was a major turning point because it was the first iteration that would work across many locations and provide a single portal or entry-point. Many enterprise customers started to take SharePoint seriously as an intranet platform for the first time. Oddly, though, it was not until around 2017 that Microsoft started to really talk about SharePoint as an intranet platform too. Even though upwards of 70% of company intranets used it by then, Microsoft seemed to keep struggling with what SharePoint was ‘for,’ producing numerous wheels and visualizations that variously described it as a development platform or application for processes and ‘composites.’ Filling the void, a thriving world of intranet in-a-box solutions from third party vendors sprung up. 

The second big turning point was a shift to SharePoint online within Office 365. Once we hit the tipping point of more SharePoint users on the cloud than on premises, Microsoft really ramped up the pace of innovation. I would say the biggest win has been a vastly improved user experience. Modern SharePoint is slick, generally easy and pleasant to use, and mobile friendly. 

Looking ahead, I do see SharePoint fading into the background a little. Those files are still there, but MS Teams has become the dominant interface. Search is as important as ever, but it needs to reach beyond the SharePoint-only world. That web-based interface will continue but supplemented by dedicated apps for our mobile devices and branded as ‘Viva Connections’ in Teams. SharePoint has a long future ahead; we just might not be as aware of it when we use it."  

Benjamin Niaulin
Benjamin Niaulin, Office, MVP and Microsoft regional director, head of product at Sharegate

"Twenty years later and at the core, SharePoint is the same product. Goes to show how forward thinking it was for its time. I remember wanting nothing to do with SharePoint at the beginning. A website? To store content and manage it? Much younger, I could not see where it was all going. And today, as SharePoint moved from a Server product to a service or 'Content Service' as Microsoft sometimes refers to is more than impressive. 

Thinking back, SharePoint 2007 really set the stage in terms of using a web page to store content and manage it. And from 2007 to SharePoint 2010, the big debate continued to be 'Folders vs. Metadata.' A certain need to have to choose and eliminate folders. 

Many things were tried over the years, SharePoint continued to incrementally grow but forgot to innovate and stay simple. Around SharePoint 2013, we started seeing the same things in the product and a growing number of 'things' it could do. 

All a sudden, SharePoint was not just a place to store content and manage it. It was a search engine, a BI tool, a communication tool, web page designer, public website maker, process automation builder, and those are just to name a few. 

The product grew but started to lose itself. A key moment, and what changed everything that followed, was Jeff Teper's return and leadership to go beyond what customers asked for and have a vision of where they would want to be in the future. 

I remember covering an article around that new SharePoint when it just arrived, a SharePoint we call 'Modern' today.   

Today, we use OneDrive for Business, SharePoint Teams Sites, Microsoft Teams and we see it as our best option to work in a distributed and digital workplace. 

Cannot wait to see the next 20 years."   

Oliver Wirkus
Oliver Wirkus, Senior technical solutions architect at NTT DATA Services and Microsoft MVP 

"Compared to SharePoint 2003, SharePoint 2007 offered a much more professional user interface, and SP2007 became the first version of SharePoint used by many organizations. Back then, the challenges for my team were how to implement the requirements of our clients and the powerful but hard-to-handle SharePoint development. If you have been a SharePoint developer at that time, you remember the mighty SharePoint Assembly and the endless struggles with how to avoid memory leaks. Still, when looking back at my work with clients and SharePoint 2007/2010, I think of that time as a kind of SharePoint Gold Rush, because SharePoint soon became extremely popular. Many organizations started building modern corporate intranets, and SharePoint Consultants had a great time. 

Things began to change when Microsoft introduced SP2013. Sites and pages became a more modern look and — most important — the development paradigm began to switch from server-side code to client-side code, which I think was the most significant change for SharePoint developers. As an established SharePoint Consultant (I already spoke at some international conferences and ran a popular blog), work switched from intranet implementations to SharePoint migrations. Many organizations recognized the document management capabilities of SharePoint. The biggest struggle for me was to educate client teams on the importance of metadata and content-types. Both are not used with corporate file-shares at all but became important when migrating documents to SharePoint. SharePoint Search would not be so powerful without a well-established structure of metadata and Content-Types. 

Things changed again when Microsoft introduced its cloud offerings Office 365 and SharePoint Online. SharePoint Online was likewise new to organizations and consultants. I would even say that Microsoft produced a revolutionary new concept when they introduced SharePoint Online. It did not take too long until organizations recognized the massive potential of a cloud-based modern workspace — and SharePoint Online became the center of most modern workspace approaches. However, concerns regarding data security and staff not being ready for the cloud were the major hurdles at that time. It took some time, but with Microsoft releasing more and more cloud-based services (like Teams, Stream or Power Platform), more and more organizations not only migrated to the cloud but rethought their current workspace and were looking for options to create their own modern workspace based on Microsoft’s cloud offering. The current global pandemic even pushed ambitions as organizations needed to switch to a work-from-home style of working quickly."  

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