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A look at NextGen Portals for Office 365

A look at NextGen Portals for Office 365

by: Eric Overfield

Two weeks ago at Microsoft's Ignite conference, we got one of our first looks a potential new shift on how we may customize SharePoint Online to create our own completely custom portals. The answer? NextGen Portals for Office 365. In a few sessions on NextGen portals, Daniel Kogan and Jeremy Kelley, both SharePoint Product Managers within Microsoft, gave a session called "Behind the Scenes: Engineering NextGen Portals,? which may be viewed now at Channel 9. This talk explored a customization paradigm shift, and it certainly appears to be the answer to Microsoft's warning of changing master pages in Office 365.

You may already be familiar with the family of NextGen Portals, which includes Office 365 Video (announced last year and now 100% live), Delve, and Codename InfoPedia (the next generation of knowledge management), to name a few. All of these tools are enhanced by key Office 365 and SharePoint Online capabilities, some of which include Office Graph, add-ins, OneDrive, Skype for Business (Lync), Yammer, and Azure Media Services. The current blend of NextGen Portals are designed to be stellar outside the office, without the need for installation, pre-scaled for the enterprise, supported, and best of all, have rich answers for specific needs.

Are NextGen Portals going to be the answer for everyone? Probably not. Although Microsoft has spent countless hours researching customer needs, they recognize that many clients will want to take these portals one, two, maybe more steps further, and they are doing a lot to make sure that these customizations are possible. This is where it gets interesting.

Microsoft is building NextGen Portals on top of SharePoint site collections (for content storage) and the SharePoint REST APIs. They are then building components to create the portals on top of this solid SharePoint/REST API foundation. Daniel and Jeremy suggested that if we want to build custom portals, we will use the same NextGen Portal model. Microsoft will maintain SharePoint and the REST API for us while we may customize to our hearts' content. If all goes as planned, as developers we may reuse all of the controls Microsoft creates for their current set of NextGen Portals in our own Portals.

The current plan appears to be that Microsoft will be making the NextGen UX open source. This is big news, and if true, must be the answer to customizing SharePoint Online without customizing master pages. Microsoft's strengths come from their robust APIs, storage, and the enterprise content back end. By providing a path to leverage these core components to create solid, custom portals, we may find methods to have our SharePoint Online portals surpass that of on-premises SharePoint.

Do note that NextGen Portals will not be available for on-premises versions of SharePoint. That is yet another reason to consider or reconsider moving SharePoint sites to the cloud over the next 12 to 18 months.

If NextGen Portals fulfill the expectations and promises made at Ignite, we as developers will be able to use industry-standard tools in order to brand our Office 365 and SharePoint portals. Master pages aren't going away, but at the same time they aren't going to be the main tool used. Why brand on something that Microsoft is going to continue to modify (master pages) when you can brand on something Microsoft maintains (SharePoint and REST APIs)?

This is just our first glimpse of how we may be customizing SharePoint in the future. I for one am very excited and will eagerly await future updates from the Product Group as details and code are released for our review.

What do you think? Have you heard something different? What's your take? Sound off and let's get the discussion going.

Eric Overfield is the President and cofounder of PixelMill, a digital branding consultancy specializing in Responsive Web Design and branding for SharePoint websites and portals.

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