Almost as soon as SharePoint 2010 was released (in May of 2010) people were requesting an app store. The ground-breaking Apple app store had gone live in 2008, and whilst the demand for apps was nothing like it is today (Apple has just celebrated 50 billion downloads since launch) there was a clear trending developing.
Microsoft listened to the users and included an app store with the release of SharePoint 2013. SharePoint has always had fantastic support from a vibrant and diverse development community. One of the key reasons behind SharePoint's worldwide success is the way the product can be extended and modified by add-ons and extensions. It is these add-ons that lend themselves so neatly to the concept of apps and app stores. An app store in SharePoint 2013 was a home run, and since launch it has been universally welcomed by all.
Microsoft has actually made app stores central to the latest wave of all of its major products. Windows 8 has its own store, and Microsoft hopes it will become the single source of Windows software for users. Individual Office 2013 desktop applications can also access an app store, and this brings us neatly to Office 365 and SharePoint 2013.
There are two types of app store in SharePoint 2013. The first is a 'public store,' which is the main app store that Microsoft has been marketing heavily. Users connect to it from within SharePoint, and it adheres to the now standard rules of a typical store. There is a search function, and users can also browse by genre. Once selected an app is downloaded and installed directly onto the SharePoint environment.
The other type of store is the 'corporate store' (referred to as an app catalog by Microsoft). This is a local, locked down store, which can be centrally managed by the particular organization running SharePoint. Only apps that have been specially selected and signed off can be included. In this way Microsoft has neatly sidestepped any opposition organizations might have to opening up their Intranets to cloud based app stores. If you are not comfortable with such a public store then the solution is simple, switch to a private store containing only the apps you have selected.
Apps themselves come in three flavours:
- SharePoint 'On-premise' hosted apps - An app is hosted entirely internally on a locally installed SharePoint environment.
- Remote apps hosted by Azure - Apps are hosted in Microsoft's developer cloud service Azure.
- Other remotely hosted apps - Apps can be hosted anywhere, and written in almost any language.
The benefits of an app store
From the very earliest version of SharePoint the concept of webparts has allowed third parties to offer new functionality. The app model neatly extends this idea, and indeed many web parts in SharePoint 2013 have now been renamed as 'apps.' But apps offer a number of significant advantages to users, administrators, and third party app developers:
Apps give users an easy way to add new functionality to the SharePoint system they are using. An app store gives them a central location with which to find this functionality. Previously a user would have had to search the web, find something suitable, and then ask IT or their system administrator if they could get it installed. App stores streamline this process significantly.
Users can also be reassured by the fact that all apps in the app store have been approved by Microsoft to meet coding, interface and integrity standards.
The SharePoint interface also makes the end user process of installing and managing apps as simple as it can be. In SharePoint 2013 the process is handled by a slick interface, with no technical knowledge required.
The single biggest advantage for administrators of SharePoint systems is control. By operating a locally managed locked down store they can offer their users additional functionality, safe in the knowledge that everything is a pre-approved app. As touched on above administrators can also be assured by Microsoft’s vetting of apps.
There are also significant advantages for third parties. The central store means more effective use can be made of any marketing and advertising efforts. Previously vendors would have to decide how to market their apps, where to make them available, and then try to rise above the noise of the web.
Microsoft also operates a revenue sharing model for the app store (currently split 80/20 in favour of developer). This might put off some of the larger players, but a store does make it easier for relatively smaller players to get in on the action.
The technical aspects of the app model also make life easier for many developers, allowing them to write apps in different languages and select from several different hosting options.
The future of the app store
The SharePoint 2013 app store also offers great scope for future growth and development of the platform. If it proves as successful as Microsoft hopes, the new app model will lead to new and innovate ways to extend SharePoint. Office 365, and the online version of SharePoint, suddenly become a dynamic platform whose functionality can easily grow and evolve. Compare that to the previous situation where SharePoint releases were every four or so years, with little in between. SharePoint 2013 is a step change.