What's a Web Part for Anyways?

Maybe I'm getting senile in my old(er) age. Maybe I'm just emotionally upset that my blog isn't listed on the usual ones for SharePoint. Maybe I'm just angry at the world. Anyways, I have to wonder about Web Parts and what is out there. Walk with me on this one. I look around and see lots of people writing new Web Parts which is great. But then I have to wonder is it really that great? Let's look at the classification of Web Parts that seem to be prevelant out there.

These are things that rollup information from the current site. This can be documents on a site, list items (rolled up and presented into a chart), or a list of sub sites under a parent to create a dynamic site map. CorasWorks has this nailed down pat with their suites of tools (even allowing you to create your own rollup no matter what or where the content is). There are lots of others that do pretty much the same (both free and commercial).

So many feeders and consumers we have a plethora of choices in this area.

Display User
I don't know how many times I see the "How do I show the user his name" Web Part. The variation on this is to display all users (much like the Members Web Part) pulling information from AD, another site, a list, etc.

Document Management
Lets face it. Some of the document features of a doclib are pretty sad (like the inability to simply move a doclib from one place to another without enabling Explorer View that I can't stand). I've seen a few Web Parts including a recent one that presents a different view of a document library (a more Explorer like interface with a treeview and the details).

Recent Updates
A Web Part that shows what's been going on like documents posted in the last x days, lists updated, who visited, etc.

Similar to the document management problem (and somewhat tied into the Rollups) is navigation. People seem to want different navigation so there are gobs of treeviews out there that show sites and subsites in every which way you can. This includes some other type of vertical navigation across an entire site like breadcrumbs and tabs.

Search Enhancements
A few of these have come out recently (including free ones from commercial vendors) basically enhancing the somewhat simple full-text search of WSS.

Did I miss anything? Probably. There are others out there. The point here is there really substance. The top 5 components on Microsofts Component Directory? A training kit that Microsoft created, 2 Web Parts that are bundled in with Office downloads, an RSS feeder, and an admin tool. What is it that people want besides what is already out there because frankly, these things listed are pretty standard fare. Is the SharePoint Web Part space that barren already? Where is that "killer" Web Part we've all been waiting for?

Or maybe the Web Part ideas are exhausted and what we really need are templates that cater to delivering complete solutions. Jim Duncan provided this through an experiment he did on building a blog site using WSS which looks awesome. Serge van den Oever (got your name right this time) also put together an enhanced dicussion list (still nothing as close to what I consider a discussion forum like phpBB, but great none the less). So maybe more list and site templates are what the community needs and not Web Parts? How about a Knowledge Base site template you can drop in and customize to your corporate needs. Or a Help Centre system complete with automated emails and ticket management. Not impossible to do and these templates can be built to adapt to anyones configuration if done correctly. Some of these solutions might contain custom Web Parts (like Jim's does) but again those are specialized for a specific purpose and not something anyone can use on any old Team site.

The Web Part framework was designed to provide a well crafted and simple system where you could plug anything (yes, anything) into a Web Part Page and benefit from it. Are the only Web Parts worth building the ones that solve a very specific business need like pulling SAP data from a backend system or talking to your corporate database systems? Is there nothing that is general enough that everyone wants, needs, desires that a Web Part could provide for you? I have yet to see the burning conversations in the newsgroups on "If only I had a Web Part that did...". Wouldn't that make people leap up and start building it (I know I sure would). It just isn't happening. So has the Web Part outlived it's glamour and the honeymoon is over already?


  • I see employees of companies using web parts all the time. The thing is, most of the work people do doesn't require the fancy type of web parts that are typically demonstrated to would-be web part developers. If a team lead can see a list of projects sorted by status they're happy. If a project manager can see a list of risks sorted by impact they're happy. occassionally folks want to see inter-related lists dynamically refresh when they pick a category in one, but not usually. The most common development I see are folks building web service interfaces on top of legacy systems and then consuming the SOAP interface via the built-in data view web part.

    I think you are right in that demand is the culprit. As knowledge/information workers start to get more capable of build self-organizing systems with platforms like SharePoint, they are likely to need more advanced analysis and inter-related displays like some of the fancy web parts typically demonstrated to developers. In the meantime, to start, people are quite happy when they don't have to send a link to a spreadsheet to collaborate with their project peers.

    Demand for more rich information in web parts will arise as service oriented architectures become more robust inside large companies.

  • Bil, I'd just like to point out that you are top of my SP bloggers list :)

  • Perhaps the closest to the killer part is the SmartPart. An excellent concept that unfortunately has not been used fully.

    I occasionally hear people say that they have built so-and-so a web part to do such-and-such but it is specific to an internal application so is never let in to the public domain. Other developers don't release their web parts as they feel they have used their time and money on it but never get round to packaging it in a form they could market.

    Maybe vNext will improve this.

    Oh, and must remember to update my blog links ;)

  • I'd love to see better integration with CommunityServer and FlexWiki.

    I think the SDLC tools area is another area of great possibilty. nTeam might be covering this at some point, but somthing to report unit test results, build server results, etc. A GotDotNet or SourceForge replacement. Tie in back-end SCC providers such as CVS, bug tracking. Basically a mini-Team System. Requirements mgmt seems is less fought over than other areas.

    I've seen Exchange webparts, but nothing that fit some co-workers needs, which is accessing public folders and user info (email addresses, etc)

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