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What's new in SharePoint 2013: Homing in on lesser-known features

If you're scouting for what's new in SharePoint 2013, here's a roundup of some lesser-known but compelling new features.

For IT administrators who are researching what's new in SharePoint 2013, virtually every blog and website will tout the social and mobile capabilities of the release. From new templates that mimic Facebook to mobile-device-optimized views, the social and mobile enhancements are substantial. They are potential game changers for workplace team dynamics and effective field deployment.

But there's a lot more in the latest release of SharePoint. So, if you're looking to make the business case for an upgrade to SharePoint 2013, consider the less flashy enhancements as well. They can easily be just as useful to enterprises as the sexier, oft-cited features.

Enterprise search and e-discovery

For companies of all sizes, enterprise search is mundane but now ubiquitous and strategically indispensable. Previously, Microsoft never got the enterprise search capability right; SharePoint's enterprise-level search has been mediocre through 2010, and without excuse.

However, among what's new in SharePoint 2013, e-discovery capabilities have improved. The first step in the right direction has been to tear down the barriers between site collections, which makes content truly global. But no matter how global it is, it's still second-rate if the results aren't meaningfully arranged. The most obvious new feature is Result Type, which helps a user zero in on the truly useful stuff. And hovering over a result lets a user peek at the contents to see whether it's the right result.

But the real step forward is more advanced analytics in the search engine, enabling a result ranking system that produces vastly more relevant results. This component of the engine learns over time, homing in on the experience of all SharePoint users and refining results according to their collective choices.

Going the extra mile, Microsoft enabled not only a more global search across an entire SharePoint farm but also search between farms, and it threw Exchange servers into the mix. Content can be discovered via eDiscovery queries, which can cover all that terrain (and file shares, too).

Site development

In what's new in SharePoint 2013 site development, the big deal is interchangeable HTML5. After years of dropping a copy of SharePoint Designer into the lap of any nontechnical person tasked with customizing a site, it's now possible to instead brand in HTML -- using a new Design Manager user interface (UI) -- to convert the code into a .NET master page. The UI generates snippets that are ASP.NET-independent; SharePoint markup is filtered out. The snippets are portable to any Web design platform.

If you're looking to make the business case for an upgrade to SharePoint 2013, consider the less flashy enhancements as well.

This interchangeability has lots of nerd appeal, but the hidden value is that branding chores can now be assigned to a far greater talent pool: Site customization is no longer solely the province of .NET developers or people with similar levels of expertise. And for the nontechnical site builder, the time sink and associated frustration of learning SharePoint Designer are no longer necessary.

Web content management

Publishing content across sites has improved in SharePoint 2013. The headline for this improved feature should read "Making content more readily available is the whole point of SharePoint Server." The new Catalog feature, which renders libraries and lists shareable across publishing sites, is a major step forward.

But Managed Navigation is the unsung hero in content management here. It allows users to create a new navigation structure alongside the conventional one, driven by term sets in the Term Store. With the selected terms sets (which can be taken from different site collections and combined), navigation based on business functionality (such as product or service lists) can be generated, with some pages using one term set and other pages using other sets.

SharePoint 2013’s ‘sexy’ features

But lest we forget, SharePoint 2013's social media boost and mobile deployment enhancements are compelling. So, what about them?

Among what's new in SharePoint 2013 social computing, the big deal is the new Facebook-like Community Site template. It alone is reason enough to celebrate, but there's a hidden gem as well in My Sites, where the libraries have been supercharged.

First, the My Sites document library is now the default location for a user's Office documents. When created and saved, a Word or Excel file is routed to the library by means of the My Sites URL. The utility of this is obvious: Rather than just living in a folder on a user's desktop, those Office files are now wrapped up in the administrative and security blankets of SharePoint -- and the files are shareable. It's amazing that Microsoft didn't develop this three years ago.

Second, a My Sites shared library can now be truly shared (as all 2013 libraries can), allowing the user to assign permission for library access without needing to understand how inheritance works.

More on SharePoint 2013 features

Guide to SharePoint 2013 features and migration

Read about the upgraded e-discovery capabilities in SharePoint 2013

Upgrading to SharePoint 2013 challenges

Get up to speed on SharePoint 2013's workflow improvements

Check out our guide to deploying and using SharePoint

On the mobile front, everyone's getting excited about the HTML5-based Contemporary View, an optimization for cell phone screens. And a side feature is the ability to view MS Office apps, such as Excel, Word and PowerPoint, in mobile browsers.

The real value, however, is that, with the new Device Channels feature, you can enlist different views for various mobile devices. For any given site, multiple page layouts can be defined, and a new panel allows a particular layout to be assigned to a specific device: one for Android tablets, another for a cell phone and so on. Page layouts can be optimized by screen size, with page density appropriately tweaked. So, the optimized Contemporary View can be served up on a phone with appropriate detail, and you can include that and more on a tablet. And if this channeling seems like a small thing, it's not nearly as small as the OK button is when a full site is rendered in a cell phone browser.

SharePoint has always been about hidden value. Until now, it's been too well-hidden. If you've been on the fence, now's the time to deploy it -- or at least to begin researching it.

About the author:
Scott Robinson is a 20-year IT veteran with extensive credentials in business intelligence and systems integration. An enterprise architect with a background in social psychology, he frequently consults and lectures on analytics, business intelligence and social informatics, primarily in the healthcare and human resources industries.

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