SharePoint is widely lauded for its sites-based intranet and extranet capabilities, which allow users to share virtually anything with coworkers, partners, and others. Less well known, however, is SharePoint's related functionality for managing and publishing publically-facing Internet web sites. And even those who have explored this area in the past will find that SharePoint 2010 (and SharePoint Online, part of Office 365) has dramatically improved Internet site capabilities, in response to customer requests.

This isn't your father's SharePoint.

"The Internet site capabilities in SharePoint are very exciting for us," Microsoft director of SharePoint product management Jared Spataro told me in a recent briefing. "People have not historically thought of it being used that way. But Dot Com and extranet sites are an evolution of the core SharePoint feature set, and are in fact the future of SharePoint."

If you're at all familiar with SharePoint, it's not hard to understand how these capabilities evolved. Once you provide employees with the freedom to create ad hoc, web-based sites for document storage, management, and sharing, and real time collaboration, it's not a great leap to extend those capabilities beyond your own organization. But in the past, this required a formal trust relationship between your company and the partner company, adding a layer of complexity. It also originally required a second server product, Microsoft Content Management Server.

Today, more and more customers are looking for ways to add interactivity to outward-facing sites, and they want to be able to use their own data, and the skills they've honed over the years with SharePoint. So Microsoft's CMS features were rolled into SharePoint 2007, and now in the current generation of products, we see dramatically more sophisticated capabilities for building public-facing sites.

We also see a dramatic explosion in the use of SharePoint for public web sites. But don't take my word for it: There's a pretty amazing independent demo site, Top SharePoint Internet Sites, which graphically shows off some of the more interesting sites using an animated, sortable grid of site thumbnails that also happens to be a SharePoint and Silverlight technology demonstration in its own right.

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Seriously, spend some time with it: You can zoom in and out using your mouse's scroll wheel, navigate in four directions, filter by country, industry, rating, platform or date added, and search for particular sites.

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What you see here is an interesting mix of the old and the new. One of the things that dogged previous SharePoint-based sites was that the templates for publicly-facing sites were a bit too, shall we say, similar, with a familiar, boxy-based design that betrayed the underlying portal-based templates that are still common for traditional (i.e. non-public) SharePoint sites. But with SharePoint getting a lot more sophisticated these days, you're also seeing an amazing array of uniquely designed Internet sites. It's no longer possible to look at a web site and immediately know it's created in SharePoint. And some of these sites are positively amazing.

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One great example is the Ferrari web site. It doesn't look or act like the stereotypical SharePoint portal site, instead offering up a very visual and interactive design.

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The key to this change is an updated version of the Web Content Management (WCM) platform in SharePoint 2010 and SharePoint Online. This new WCM system includes a fully ribbon-based user experience, whether you manage your site from the web or from a rich client application (including the free SharePoint Designer, below), an improved WYSIWYG editor (again, from both web and client app), improved web standards and web browser support, dramatically better meta-data management (remember: Everything in SharePoint is an object with viewable and settable properties), and better content management capabilities.

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And regardless of whether you're looking for a portal based design or not, using SharePoint as a web backend lets you easily expose internal SharePoint data structures--lists and so on--and provide an in-house authoring and publishing experience.

So let's take a look at what that entails. This short walkthrough utilizes SharePoint Online, which is part of Office 365. Currently, the on-premise versions of SharePoint 2010 offer a superset of these capabilities, which I'll discuss a bit towards the end of this article, but even the basic capabilities in Office 365 are pretty terrific.

In Office 365, SharePoint sites are managed through the Site Collections interface in SharePoint administration. Here, you can create and manage one public Internet site (which SharePoint identifies as a Public Website) and multiple Private Site Collections. (In on-premise SharePoint, you can have multiple public web sites too.) A public web site can use a vanity domain (such as thurrott.com, which isn't actually a SharePoint site) or it can be a sub-site off of the domain name you're using for the main (private) SharePoint site (something like paul.thurrott.com, which doesn't actually exist; just an example).

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Configuring a public web site is similar, at a high level, to doing so for any other SharePoint-based site: You can specify administrators, storage and resource usage quotas, the domain name, and so on, and then design of the site is handed off to web site designers, who do so through Office 365's simple and familiar web interface. (Or, you can load up the site in SharePoint Designer, which provides a richer interface.)

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New pages are created using templates, and while most of these are indeed of the boxy, portal-based designs of the past, you're also free to play with the design, add custom CSS styles, and so. But while the editing interface in the Office 365 version of SharePoint values simplicity over deep coding tools, you can still take advantage of inherent site management tools like consistent headers, footers, and navigation. And as you change styles and designs, those changes will be propagated throughout the site.

Currently, the on premise versions of SharePoint offer more web design capabilities than does the Office 365 version, though that gap will close over time. Users of SharePoint 2010 will see more granular control over site content and structure, access settings, layouts, workflow (including approval process, staging, and publishing), and so on. For this reason, Office 365 is a better fit, currently, for smaller organizations and those businesses with simple public web site needs.

Rafael Rivera and I will be using SharePoint Online in Office 365 for the public web site for our coming book, Windows 8 Secrets. And while these plans aren't yet definite, that site should be public at or soon after the BUILD conference in mid-September. As with my current Windows Phone Secrets blog, the goal here will be the document the creation of the book, and interact with readers both during and after that process. My expectation is that SharePoint Online will be an ideal platform for that project.

And while the typical business may not turn to SharePoint specifically for Internet web site publishing, it's a capability that's finally coming into its own, one that can help you extend workers' SharePoint skills to public-facing sites as well.