The app store - though not officially called an "app store" due to a pending dispute with Apple - launched in beta this month with 100 applications and 400 professional services from Microsoft partners. The apps and services are available for Exchange, Lync, Office and SharePoint, but SharePoint is the real key for the app store, suggests Gartner analyst Mark Gilbert.
"I've been suggesting to Microsoft that they needed an app store for SharePoint for probably five years now," he says.
Despite the previous lack of an app store, a large number of third-party vendors have built applications to add functionality to SharePoint.
But with Microsoft trying to expand usage of SharePoint Online, Gilbert says tools for customising SharePoint and industry-specific services will be necessary. For example, HR departments or pharma companies want reliable tools that are geared toward their specific needs and help them get SharePoint deployments up and running, he says. In general, SharePoint requires more customisation than other Microsoft software.
"Offering a generic SharePoint experience won't really satisfy most users," Gilbert says.
Microsoft is locking down the Office 365 marketplace with strict requirements for applications to be listed. Applications will have to pass the "Microsoft Platform Ready" test, which will become available when Office 365 exits beta and enters commercial availability. "All software and services solutions will be subject to Microsoft evaluation to make sure those solutions add value to Office 365 customers," Microsoft says.
This approach, apparently more strict than what you'd see with mobile phone app stores, makes sense given that these applications and services will be targeted at corporate users.
It's probably too early to know how much of an impact the marketplace will have on real-world implementations.
"It's certainly a strong move by Microsoft, though it seems to be mostly implementation partners at this point," says Forrester analyst Ted Schadler. "It will get much more interesting once people build tight integrations of their own cloud services and start customising apps for SharePoint in the cloud."
So far, the marketplace lists 30 tools for SharePoint Online. Tools and consulting services for deployment, implementation and migration seems to be the most common type of offering, and are generally geared at a wide customer-base rather than specific industries. One product from CDW provides an "Intranet Accelerator" to help SharePoint customers build portals for collaboration.
According to Microsoft, more than 70 percent of customers in the Office 365 private beta were small businesses. That number makes Gilbert wonder how effective the service will be for large enterprises. Microsoft will have to prove that Office 365 can scale up to attract big customers, he says.
"The problem with these betas is it's still way early and we don't have any real-world feedback on Office 365 yet," Gilbert says.
But some organisations are planning to move large numbers of users to Office 365, or at least to Exchange Online.
Tom Boxrud, director of enterprise infrastructure at Underwriters Laboratories in Illinois, is moving a 7,200-person user base to Exchange Online after Office 365 goes live. For now, he says, the company is keeping SharePoint in-house but will keep an eye on the growth of SharePoint Online to see if moving to the cloud-based version makes sense in the future. SharePoint Online seems to be good for use as a document repository, portal and collaboration service, but Underwriter Laboratories needs something more robust for launching applications, Boxrud says.
Gilbert thinks more third-party tools can close the gap, but says it won't be easy.
"If they're going to build out a real app store on SharePoint, it's not about simple widgets," Gilbert says. "It's about real applications. People want repeatability and a lower cost of implementing these solutions and getting to functionality."