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Microsoft recommends branding SharePoint Online, Office 365 with themes, alternate CSS and other CSOM methods rather than creating custom master pages

In a video tutorial available to the public on MSDN’s Channel 9, Microsoft presents an argument for branding SharePoint Online, Office 365 sites with themes and other CSOM methods. The title of this video tutorial is Transform SharePoint Customizations to SharePoint App Model: (02) Controlling Branding in SharePoint Using App Model. The tutorial is included in the Microsoft Virtual Academy Jump Start collection and is led by Steve Walker and Vesa Juvonen, who are both Senior Program Managers with Microsoft.

One recommendation is repeated over and over again throughout this tutorial, which comprises about one hour of video: don’t create custom master pages. It is not possible to miss this message. So why would Microsoft include this message in the video, and what, if anything, might this message have to do with a recent public announcement of the removal of Internet site publishing options for SharePoint Online, Office 365?

In my opinion it is perhaps easier to understand the decision to remove the Internet site publishing option when one considers the systemic problems Walker and Juvonen present as directly related to a decision to build and implement custom master pages for SharePoint Online sites. Walker and Juvonen, broadly speaking, present two major reasons why larger organizations (with “10K sites” to mention another often-repeated phrase in this tutorial) should think carefully about implementing custom master pages to achieve branding objectives:

  • Once customized, master pages cannot be updated as Microsoft rolls out periodic changes to Office 365 branding. If these changes happen to include functional enhancements, or security fixes, then a decision to implement customized master pages will break inheritance, potentially to the detriment of the organization opting to proceed in this direction
  • SharePoint Online is merely one of a set of Office 365 components. End users may not react positively to Office 365 as a collection of dissimilar computing experiences. The result may be lower levels of user adoption of Office 365 computing

These two reasons make sense. But while the video tutorial does include a presentation of using alternate CSS as a method of achieving some customization, there is not a presentation of other CSOM methods (notably JavaScript), which, in theory, can be used to achieve the customization objective. It would have been helpful if some examples of how JavaScript can play a role in the customization process had been included in this tutorial.

If readers are wondering what these recommendations may have to do with Microsoft’s decision to remove the Internet-facing sites option, it is as follows: the predominant reason for organizations opting for extensively branded site, as Walker notes in this tutorial, is precisely for Internet-facing sites. In contrast, Intranet sites often do quite well with superficial methods of achieving a custom brand — via Office 365 themes.

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