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Microsoft Introduces new SharePoint Development Framework

June 2, 2016

SharePoint Development FrameworkWhat is the new “SharePoint Development Framework” that Microsoft talked about at its Future of SharePoint event May 4th? What value does it bring to SharePoint development – and ultimately, to businesses that use SharePoint?

Many Technet and blog articles delve into the programming particulars of this new framework, and we will leave them to explain those details. Our concern here is the business value of the framework and why Microsoft highlighted it as one of the cool new features of SharePoint.

A Modern Development Kit for SharePoint

Put simply, the new framework gives SharePoint developers a modern development kit that is flexible, extensible, robust – and that embraces Microsoft’s “mobile-first, cloud-first” initiative. The framework is based on open source JavaScript, not Microsoft’s proprietary .NET model. It implements mobile-friendly, responsive design right from the start.

Since 2001, SharePoint development has largely been the province of .NET server-side code. In today’s world, however, the focus has shifted to JavaScript and client-side code. JavaScript has advanced significantly from its early days and now enables developers to build highly-engaging user experiences that run in desktop browsers as well as on mobile devices.

The SharePoint Development Framework introduces a structured approach that enables developers to create exciting SharePoint experiences using JavaScript, a much more flexible and open source technology than .NET.

An Open and Connected Platform Means More Options for All

The SharePoint Framework is designed to be an open and connected platform; many barriers to development have been removed. It is expected to decrease development time while increasing innovation, participation, and accessibility. Development will be more automated, while the use of JavaScript will create more options for web part and app development.

Accessibility to open source solutions means that many .NET obstacles (e.g., we need to build a new workaround) will now be replaced by JavaScript open source solutions (e.g., the functionality is already available via open source). This new approach goes hand-in-hand with Microsoft’s focus on the cloud and mobile, both of which have advanced due to new innovation rather than reliance on outdated technologies.

The extensibility of the SharePoint Framework is another compelling factor. A range of new APIs is due for general release this year (e.g., Office Graph) along with open source options. Ultimately, this will make a big difference to SharePoint enthusiasts who are not necessarily developers, as it will enable them to proactively contribute to their own SharePoint environments.

What’s Old Is New Again

Microsoft did not so much invent new tools as adapt existing ones for SharePoint development purposes. Two of the framework’s components, Yeoman and Gulp, have been part of the open-source community for a number of years. As mentioned during the May 4th presentation, Microsoft engineers have been using the framework for some time to build modern apps and experiences for Web and mobile devices. Microsoft has now packaged and shared this new approach with the SharePoint development world as a whole.

The SharePoint Development Framework features the following trio of technologies:

  • Yeoman: A scaffolding tool for modern Web applications. In non-developer lingo, this means that developers can immediately create project structures that facilitate the use of custom functionality. Bottom line: developers can work faster.
  • Gulp: Gulp leverages a wide variety of plugins to perform repetitive development tasks, automate minification (removing unnecessary characters from source code), and perform compression. Bottom line: it makes development more efficient.
  • Workbench: A local, offline testing environment that replicates SharePoint, allowing developers to test new web parts and apps before pushing them to production environments. Again, the result is increased developer efficiency.

For a good overview of the framework’s components, see Be prepared to the SharePoint framework by Jose Ferreira.

SharePoint Pages Easier to Create and Enhance

Another important part of the new framework is a change to the structure of SharePoint pages. At the developer level, pages can be constructed using any client-side JavaScript and templating framework such as React or Angular. For non-developers, customizing SharePoint pages is now a straightforward process: it’s simply a matter of clicking on a plus icon and selecting and placing components. This approach opens up new possibilities for both developers and non-developers to create interesting and engaging user experiences.

The framework provides a page layout that is responsive and mobile-ready by design. Each page has a “Chrome” structure that surrounds the page body. This Chrome layer manages the presentation of the page so that it displays appropriately for the device in use, whether a desktop, tablet, or smartphone. The body of the page becomes a canvas where web parts, files, apps, Delve components, and other elements can be placed and arranged according to business needs, without the worry about whether the page will display properly on different devices.

For more information on the new page structure, see this technical video from Microsoft.

Conclusion

The new SharePoint Development Framework introduces some much-needed discipline to an arena that was quickly succumbing to a customization-centric morass. It should open the gates of innovative SharePoint development, both on-premises and in Office 365. It’s a win-win for Microsoft, developers, and IT organizations: more options, increased efficiency, engagement with non-developers, and decreased development time will combine to impact the financial bottom line… in a good way.

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