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Is It an Application, a Platform, or a Framework?

In the world of information technology software, we often refer to the tools that we use as applications, platforms, or even frameworks:

  • An application is computer software designed to help a user perform specific tasks.
  • A computing platform includes a hardware architecture and a software framework that allow application software to run—for example, the operating system and programming languages.
  • A software framework helps facilitate software development by providing generic capabilities that can be changed or configured to create a specific software application.

Are you confused yet? Well, so is the entire SharePoint community! For a long time, there has been a great deal of debate within the SharePoint community about whether SharePoint is an application or a platform or a framework. SharePoint has a little bit of functionality that could allow you to argue that it is all of these. In the past, SharePoint was positioned as a platform marketed to IT for businesses to build on to create the “center of gravity” for collaboration. Key elements of functionality were referred to as “workloads” that could be brought together to build solutions. The “workload” terminology never really caught on outside of Microsoft and the SharePoint consulting community—and has added to the confusion about “What is it?”

One of the reasons that the debate has raged for so long has to do with how easy it is to customize and configure SharePoint to do pretty much anything you want—that is, to use it as a framework. Unfortunately, by making things so easy to customize—by abstracting the details of the software code required to configure SharePoint enough so that business users can create complex custom solutions—Microsoft unintentionally introduced risk into many organizations because some of those user-created software solutions literally “brought the house down.”

Another reason for the debate has had to do with a general dissatisfaction with the SharePoint “look and feel.” There is probably no consultant or internal IT person responsible for SharePoint who has not heard a business sponsor say, “We’ll use it, but make it not look like SharePoint.” No business sponsors that we know of have ever told their IT folks or consultants, “We’ll use Microsoft Word, but don’t make it look like Word.” Applying a custom look and feel to Microsoft Word would be a colossal waste of corporate money—and it’s just wrong for so many reasons. But pretty much everyone wants to brand SharePoint. When you can completely change the look and feel of a software product, it doesn’t “feel” like an application, especially because when you go from one company to another, you might not be able to easily tell whether the Web site you are using is based on SharePoint or not—until you look under the covers.

With SharePoint 2013, Microsoft appears to want to stop the debating and define SharePoint clearly as an application—but not necessarily as an application with a single purpose. Unlike the Microsoft Word application, which has basically one functional purpose—to create documents—Microsoft considers SharePoint a multipurpose application—one that can be used to create other, highly “personal” applications, one that can be used as is to solve some specific collaboration scenarios, and one that can actually be used as a delivery vehicle to expose other applications (apps within the app, if you will). For some business scenarios, such as your public-facing Web site, it makes good business sense to not just configure how you want to organize and manage your content, but to also customize the look and feel of SharePoint to align with your corporate identity and the purpose and intention of your Internet site. SharePoint 2013 makes this much easier than with any prior version by providing capabilities so that any Web designer or developer can design a SharePoint site without having to become a SharePoint expert. Web designers can create beautiful state-of-the-art Web sites using the tools with which they are already familiar—and SharePoint will convert their HTML files to work with SharePoint automatically. For other business scenarios, such as your internal team collaboration sites, it may make more sense to leverage SharePoint much as you leverage Microsoft Word—as an application for which you spend far more time configuring how you will use it and less time on completely rebranding the look and feel. Minor cosmetic changes to include corporate colors and logos may be sufficient to support internal branding.

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