What is SharePoint and What Does It Do?

A Basic SharePoint Layout

SharePoint is Microsoft's collaboration platform, similar to Google Drive, yet much more. It's a place where team members can communicate, exchange data, and work together; a shared file repository, blog, web content management system, and an intranet.

SharePoint as an Improved File Drive

Some years ago, cutting-edge Microsoft collaboration had two components: Exchange, which powered email and shared calendars, and network file drives. These drives, which you might remember had drive letters like "S:" or "X:", housed files your whole team could access, but only one person could actually edit them at a time. As a workaround, you might copy them to your local machine and edit there. This would sometimes lead to confusion, lots of overwriting, and cryptic file names.

So Microsoft created SharePoint, which provided a couple of advantages:

  • File Versioning: Means you could have a single "Our Important Report.doc" file. SharePoint would manage the "revision 1," "revision 2," etc. It even provided a commenting function, so you could describe what changes that particular revision introduced, e.g. "this contains Aaron's Comments".
  • Check-in/Check-out: The ability for a user to lock a file from changes by another user. If someone attempted to access a file another user has checked out, SharePoint would prompt them to download it locally, but also warn that any changes made may be out of sync with whatever the current user is doing. This provided a simple workflow where at least someone should wait until the other person is finished. More recent versions even offer to notify a person when the file is freed up.
  • Powerful Indexing and Searching: This became a cornerstone feature as the world grew accustomed to Googling everything. Gone were the days where you'd need to dig down through a dozen levels of folders and hope you remembered them just right.
  • A Web interface: This combined with the improved search made SharePoint a one-stop shop for collaborating on enterprise content.
  • Integration with Windows Apps: The ability to get a file from SharePoint using the File > Open dialogs seen in Windows programs like Microsoft Office.

In a clever move, Microsoft also retained the old file drive concept, meaning you could open an Excel file from your "X:" drive, modify it, then save it, just like before. However, in the background, SharePoint would check the file out for you, then check it back in and version it for you. All of these features still exist and work well, but SharePoint is more than just a fancy file drive today.

Office 365 and the SharePoint Collaboration Platform

As Google, Apple, DropBox, and others improved the capabilities of their cloud services, Microsoft was working on their own. A new file sharing service called SkyDrive (now OneDrive) took over simple file sharing. With that, SharePoint became an important component of Microsoft's Office 365 product, which paired cloud-based collaboration with subscription-based access to Office.

SharePoint is a Web Content Platform, but not precisely the WordPress or Squarespace you probably associate with this term. You could use SharePoint to create pages and publish them as a website, but you could also create a site for a department team, then drop Web Parts into it that might include a blog with announcements, a list of team members from Exchange, a library of documents, and a grid of data driven by an Excel workbook.

As a public-facing web CMS it was adequate, but as an intranet that could show bits of corporate data, it was pretty cool.

What is SharePoint Today?

Today's SharePoint builds on its strengths and is compatible with Windows, macOS, Android, iOS, and web browsers. It retains the same concept of a "site," but more recent versions introduced the ability to add apps to that site. Third-party developers even have a marketplace in which they can offer their own.

Adding Apps to a Modern Version of SharePoint

SharePoint is like a home base for your team, where you can collect files, discussions, announcements, and just about any other form of collaboration you can imagine.

Tips for How to Use SharePoint

  • SharePoint is available as part of Office 365, but only for business accounts. That said, these accounts can be had for as little as $5/month.
  • The central concept in SharePoint is a Site. You need to set up a Site first, then you can add content or widgets to it.
  • While SharePoint used to be a CMS much like WordPress, where you input content and it was published to a public website, the Office 365 version is more commonly used as a collaboration space.