We're currently at Microsoft's SharePoint 2009 conference in Las Vegas. With a new SharePoint release (and a new Office) in the offing, it's not surprising that there's a lot going on - after all SharePoint is now a $1.3 billion business for Microsoft.
One of the least obvious changes is the name. SharePoint has dropped the Office, and stepped out into the world on its own. What's more, it's Microsoft's newest platform, with a underlying service oriented architecture, and support for web service and RESTful connections to the outside world. There's a whole ecosystem building on top of SharePoint - you just have to wander down to the busy show floor to see just how many businesses are betting their own dollar on Microsoft's tools and services.
You always could develop SharePoint applications. Web Parts made it the ideal host for your corporate dashboards, and extensions hooked it into workflow and content management. But SharePoint 2010 takes things a lot further, with an improved set of tools for adding your own features (with Windows 7 support) and for linking SharePoint into line-of-business applications and into the Office tools.
Microsoft has always promised that the Office suite will be the UI for the information worker. But up to now its tooling has failed to deliver on the promise. Visual Studio Tools for Office left you with new components and new panes, but really didn't give you the deep integration that you really want.
SharePoint 2010's Business Connectivity Services simplify things considerably - and without any code (though you can add as much as you like). A demo in one of the keynotes showed BCS used to connect Outlook's contacts to a customer database - with new contacts appearing in the shared database as soon as they're entered in Outlook. That's the kind of seamless integration that end users want...
So how can you build on the platform? For hard core developers, Visual Studio 2010 will support SharePoint development, with design-surfaces for Web Parts and full access to SharePoint server resources. You'll also be able to use .NET's LINQ query language alongside Silverlight for user interface development. Components include a Silverlight organisational chart browser and a pre-built Silverlight media player - with streaming part of the SharePoint server.
Power users have not been overlooked, and SharePoint 2010 will mix code-based development with the rapid development tools built into Access 2010 and InfoPath 2010. Then there's the free SharePoint Designer (FrontPage as was). It finally drops the general page design features, and adds support for designing and managing SharePoint workflows. Alternatively, individual charts and other elements from documents are available as self-updating feeds that can be embedded in Web pages and blog posts, building on the Office XML file formats.
Ballmer said this tool makes SharePoint development much more accessible for 'mashups' of information. "If you say 'end users in my company can't do that kind of thing', well, some of them can, some of them can't. We’re getting simpler and simpler for people to develop their own SharePoint uses," he said.
There are also tools to make sure new applications don't get out of control. Developers and SharePoint administrators get a new developer dashboard showing resource usage and availability, along with a sandbox where new web parts and features can be tested without affecting the rest of a site. SharePoint 2010 will use PowerShell for scripting and administrators who prefer the command line to the browser will be able to use more than 500 new PowerShell commands.
It's not surprising there are so many developer sessions here in Vegas - and what happens here is most definitely going home to SharePoint sites all round the world.