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July 20, 2012

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An introduction to SharePoint Apps in SharePoint 2013

by Anders B. Skjønaa (SharePointPeople.dk)

A lot of new things are introduced with the SharePoint 2013 Preview, released by Microsoft just a few days ago. Many of these “things” are expected and seem as a natural continuation of existing functionality. SharePoint Apps feel a little different.  It’s completely new! Or is it?

Building extensions has always been a big part of SharePoint. Thankfully tools and API’s have evolved a lot, and some of my friends – who was always been .NET developer type of persons – have finally accepted and embraced SharePoint as a developer platform. And that is a big part of what SharePoint Apps is all about.

So what are SharePoint Apps? They are simply a new way of providing extensions for SharePoint. Since SharePoint – with SharePoint 2013 / Office 365 – span across on-premises and cloud, there is a need for a new model for extending SharePoint that will work in all of these. SharePoint Apps technology is designed to work either on you SharePoint infrastructure, in a private or public cloud or even in a “blended” scenario where databases and logic is conveniently provisioned with Microsoft (Azure).

Why Apps?

The “application” concept is nothing new – as you know – but it work very well in other places, and SharePoint has a huge but fragmented market for extensions of all sizes and shapes. SharePoint Apps will have an official “App Store” where people can find Apps and install them easily. Apps are not ideal for the deeply integrated type of solutions, but for the much larger number of lightweight extensions that seem to have a big end-user impact, SharePoint Apps are great.

So the big news for vendors of SharePoint extensions is that Microsoft will provide a new channel for them to present their solutions to a global audience. And for the SharePoint users – the solutions that are available will be much more visible and easier to purchase. Microsoft will not only let you download and install apps from the Store, but is also providing a purchasing platform, as we know it from other App Stores.

But the App Store concept is also available as an “internal service” allowing you to provide SharePoint Apps that are built only for your company to your users. This is really good stuff! Since the App Store concept is so easy for users to understand, the company app catalogue will help you not only to share apps that have already been developed, but also to maintain good control over what is made available.

How SharePoint Apps work

From a technical angle, you need to understand that a SharePoint App – in itself mostly consists of HTML and JavaScript. The SharePoint Client Side Object Model (CSOM) is central to SharePoint Apps. Using CSOM you can build some pretty cool applications with existing sites and services – let’s say a timesheet system or a helpdesk application. But if you need to add server-side code to your SharePoint App, you will have to go for either a hosted solution (you can host these on a dedicated server yourself or have it hosted with an ISV or hosting vendor) or use the “auto-hosted” solution, with Microsoft Azure database and services. These three options gives you good flexibility and seems like a great platform for ISV’s to start to provide more advanced SharePoint Apps – hosted at the vendor – and distributed using the SharePoint App Store.

This is Microsoft’s own drawing, that explains the three options for hosting SharePoint Apps. BTW – you can mix these in any way you like…

Naturally this architecture also fits very well with Microsoft Office 365. In fact – it is made very clear that this is what Microsoft wants you to do. Already now – only a few days after the lid was opened for SharePoint 2013 Preview, you can sign up for an Office 365 based developer environment for SharePoint Apps (http://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/library/office/apps/fp179924(v=office.15)) and on MSDN a set of introductory articles are posted.

So – what impact will SharePoint Apps have?

The coming months will show if Microsoft has gotten it right with the new SharePoint Apps and the way it combines different services and infrastructures to help create, sell, distribute and manage extensions for SharePoint. Without a doubt – SharePoint has the opportunity to take a huge leap ahead of other web platforms, if ISV’s will embrace the Microsoft Store and make it easier to find, buy and get the benefit from the thousands of excellent SharePoint add-ons available. If that will be the case, we will see a more unified add-on price level and customers will most probably be able to get much more for less.

SharePoint Apps is one of the most exciting new technologies in SharePoint from that perspective.

If you want to dive into the deep end and start to build you first SharePoint App, check out the SharePoint MSDN site at http://msdn.microsoft.com/sharepoint

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