One of the biggest changes in the release of SharePoint 2013 was the shift toward the App Model. In short, the Cloud App Model enables the creation of self-contained pieces of functionality that extend the capabilities of a SharePoint site. These are greater in complexity than a Web Part; think of performing a particular business function through or with the aid of an app.
Most are familiar with the conceptual model, given the advent of tablet devices such as the Surface. This sounds straightforward when I put it in that context, but in reality the App Model has provided more questions than answers for users, developers and businesses alike. Note, of course, that there is no App Model in place for previous versions of SharePoint.
SharePoint 2013 apps are targeted, lightweight pieces of functionality, largely focused on addressing specific user needs or solving an existing and/or acknowledged gap. To me, SharePoint apps are small programs that have new and creative ways to extend comprehensive Web Parts.
In the app store today, there are hundreds of SharePoint apps available for users that can be downloaded directly, ranging from free to US$350. These can be deployed across your farm and used to enhance single or multiple sites.
However, there are many limitations that have been found with the model, and it is critical that organizations use the right development tools for the job. While there is a big push to go to the cloud, and Microsoft has given developers the ability to create customizations through the App Model, there are still limitations for what currently exists.
An excellent article was recently published by a Microsoft employee who talked through the good, the bad and the ugly of the App Model, examining the misconception that farm solutions must be used for anything too complex. Some of the known limitations include the inability to deploy directly to the application page, a lack of delegate controls for master pages, and an app not being able to activate a Web template from the solution catalog. That said, remember that Microsoft is now releasing updates to functionality every three months, so look for an update in the near term if the limitations necessitate a change on your end.
Whether you are a developer or end user, the impact of the App Model does not change the fact that functional needs and requirements must be created in a methodical way, taking into account the true needs of the end users and business. It will always be the responsibility of the business to define the functional requirements, as well as the role of the IT team to specify how the functionality is best built into the system. Regardless of the App Model, its limitations or the potential to create new functionality, focus on the true needs of the business and apply those needs to the technology appropriately.
If you are looking to upgrade from a previous version of SharePoint, and are wondering how to get started with the App Model, don’t limit your focus on the impact of the cloud and how you may be able to change your business through new functionality. Many clients are confused by this change, and it is important to remember that an app can be limited to installation at the site level, meaning you can create functionality specifically for a particular group, such as a simple process for your HR team. You do not have to deploy an app to the entire organization. From an end-user perspective, an app isn’t necessarily “known,” and will be seen and used the same way a Web Part is experienced by users, such as incorporating menus in the SharePoint ribbon UI by providing embeddable parts for other pages.
Eric Riz is the Executive Vice President of Concatenate, creator of the RealTime suite of products. You can reach Eric by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @rizinsights. Read his other SharePoint thoughts on his blog at www.ericriz.com.