While most readers are likely familiar with the name SharePoint, it's equally likely that many of you, like me, rarely if ever actually use the product. I aim to change that. Thanks to my testing of the Office 365 service over the past nine months, I've become more and more intrigued by this jack-of-all-trades product which, like an old SNL skit, is both a dessert topping and a floor wax, a product so versatile and useful that it defies you to describe it quickly and simply.

SharePoint, of course, is actually quite popular. In fact, Microsoft tells me that it now records over 100 million active users and that the SharePoint business generates over $1.3 billion in annual revenues. It's used by 78 percent of the Fortune 500. And SharePoint isn't sitting still: It delivers double-digit growth each year and my guess is that the advent of Office 365--which now provides SharePoint 2010 access to individuals and truly small businesses for the first time ever--will drive even faster growth.

The question remains, however. What is SharePoint? And how can you use it as a user, a developer, an IT pro, or a system administrator? What exactly does SharePoint bring to the party?

Microsoft's official description of SharePoint is deliciously vague and instead of providing a simple, one-sentence definition of the product, it provides links to several high-level capabilities. But in a recent briefing, Microsoft director of SharePoint product management Jared Spataro delivered what I think is the best, and simplest, description I've seen of SharePoint yet.

"SharePoint lets you share anything with anyone," he said, simply. And where SharePoint's first ten years were marked largely by sharing within an organization, SharePoint's next ten years are all about sharing with people outside your organization.

There you go. In the past, email was the de facto sharing mechanism that we all used. But that's not effective anymore, and as SharePoint has evolved and matured, it's grown to match the sharing needs of its user base.

SharePoint started as a server for storing and sharing documents inside of a business, and as such its origins date back to the FrontPage Server Extensions (and then later the Office Server Extensions), and Microsoft's early attempts to establish its successful Office franchise in the server world. The genius behind SharePoint, perhaps, can be tied to an early design mantra that provided IT workers with the ability to create collaborative intranet sites and then portals from which they could store and share documents with coworkers, all without requiring a help desk ticket or a request to a busy admin. That is, SharePoint put the power of collaboration in the hands of the people who actually needed it.

Over time, SharePoint's capabilities expanded up and out, and today the product, which includes an on-premise server called SharePoint 2010 and a hosted service called SharePoint Online, provide an incredible range of functionality. I'll be describing these capabilities in a series of articles over the next few weeks. But for now, I want to provide a mile-high view of the power of SharePoint with the hopes that you'll examine this product for your own collaborative needs going forward. If you're an IT Pro in a Microsoft-centric environment, chances are you already have access to SharePoint. Otherwise, you can easily and inexpensively access SharePoint on your own through Office 365.

Here's just some of what you get with SharePoint.

Sites. The most basic point of collaboration in SharePoint, perhaps, is the site, and this can be a private site (one that is shared only with specific coworkers inside of an organization) or a shared site (one that is shared with workers at a partner business; these are typically thought of as intranet sites and extranet sites, respectively. A site is what you make of it, it can look like a traditional Internet web site, if you want, or a repository for various SharePoint objects, including documents (with full revision history and change management, regulatory compliance, and the like), notes, calendars, tasks, libraries, discussion forums, workflows, and more. SharePoint sites can be searched, grouped into collections, shared in a myriad of granular ways, and edited to your heart's content to be as pretty or utilitarian as you desire. When people think of SharePoint, typically they are thinking of sites, and of the basic document storage and collaboration features that are contained within.

Internet sites. Building off of the intranet and extranet sites capabilities, Microsoft has quickly begun bolstering the use of SharePoint as an Internet web site creation and management tool, driven largely by how customers were actually using the product. And unlike early SharePoint Internet sites, which were marked by obviously template-based UI styles, today's SharePoint-based Internet sites are diverse and professional looking. In fact, some of the nicest-looking web sites online, as you'll soon see, where created in SharePoint.

Social networking. With the rise of social networking services such as Facebook, many organizations are looking for ways in which their workers can share professional information about themselves--what they're working on, their areas of expertise, and so on--but within an internal, controlled environment. So SharePoint now offers very familiar tools and interfaces for this functionality, providing such things as activity streams, contacts suggestions, friends and following lists, user profiles, blogs, and the like. Via a My Site that's available to each user, you can provide information about yourself, view where you sit in your organization's hierarchy, link to frequently-needed documents and other objects, and so on. If you understand Facebook, you'll immediately grok these features, and why they can be very useful in a less public, work-related context.

Development platform. I've used the word platform to describe SharePoint with a reason: This isn't just a server, or a hosted service. Instead, SharePoint is a full-fledged platform that can be targeted by developers at a variety of levels. This means that companies can create internal solutions that are specific to their needs and that third party developers can write SharePoint solutions they can sell publicly. SharePoint solutions are written in ASP.NET, and developers are free to choose from a number of tools, from full-fledged Visual Studio for actual software development down to Visio (for workflows) and SharePoint Designer (for site design). There are some differences between on-premise and hosted SharePoint application development, but I'll cover that in a future article.

Lync integration. Like any other Microsoft server (or service), SharePoint doesn't stand alone. It also integrates with related servers (and services), including most notably, Lync, Microsoft's new presence and communications solution. This is particularly compelling in Office 365, since that service includes hosted versions of both SharePoint and Lync, giving many customers their first peek at both, and at how they can work together. At the simplest level, the true power of this integration occurs because every object created in SharePoint is tagged with, among other things, the creator of that object, along with information about who last modified the object. So from virtually anywhere in SharePoint, you can reach out to those people, see their availability and schedule, and link up with them in many ways, including email, text chat, Lync call (audio), video chat, and so on.

Availability

As noted previously, SharePoint is available in both on-premise and hosted forms, and there are various SharePoint clients that work with both as well.

The on-premise versions of SharePoint 2010 are now divided into a free option called SharePoint Foundation 2010, which can actually be installed on a Windows 7 desktop for development or testing purposes, and SharePoint Server 2010, which is of course the full-fledged version of the product. Microsoft's hosted version of SharePoint 2010 is called SharePoint Online and is now available via Office 365. Pricing starts at $6 per user per month for individuals and small businesses.

On the PC client, Microsoft offers two clients. SharePoint Workspace 2010 comes in various versions of the Microsoft Office 2010 suite and even as a standalone application. SharePoint Workspace (previously known as Office Groove) lets you seamlessly access your SharePoint sites content from anywhere, and do so while offline. You can also sync folders in Windows to SharePoint so that locally edited files are always synced back to SharePoint as well. There's also a SharePoint Designer 2010 client that you can download for free from the Microsoft web site; this application lets you design, customize, and manage web sites in any version of SharePoint 2010 using an Office-like UI.

(It's worth noting that Microsoft Office applications like Word, Excel, OneNote and so on also integrate nicely with SharePoint, and that's true regardless of whether you use SharePoint Workspace.)

Also, Microsoft offers nice integration in Windows Phone as well, and it's getting even better in Windows Phone "Mango", which will feature explicit support for Office 365 too. This functionality is built-in, and comes free with every Windows Phone. (Mango will be a free update as well.)

What's next?

So I've only touched the surface here, of course. But for the remainder of this series, I'm going to dive deeper into individual SharePoint 2010 and SharePoint Online capabilities, providing a more detailed view of what's possible in this exciting on premise and hosted collaboration solution. If you're mystified by SharePoint, as I was, you may also be interested in the ways in which my Windows 8 Secrets co-author Rafael Rivera and I are already using SharePoint (Online, in Office 365) to collaborate on this next book, sharing documents, notes, and other information in real time. I'll document that process throughout this series as well.

Next week: Powering an Internet Site with SharePoint