Microsoft this week hosted its SharePoint Conference 2011 in Anaheim, California, the first time the company has held the event in a few years. But despite being between releases, as it were, SharePoint has never been hotter. Indeed, as I've discovered myself over the past few months, it's a far more capable platform than many imagine.

It's been a while since I've written about SharePoint in Windows IT Pro UPDATE, but I've been covering the product line in an ongoing series called Inside SharePoint on the SuperSite for WindowsPart 2 covers Internet websites and Part 3 looks at social networking features. (And there's more to come.)

My awakening to the power of SharePoint has not coincidentally occurred with Microsoft rolling out Office 365: I've been using the cloud computing service to collaborate with my co-author on the forthcoming Windows 8 Secrets, and we've both been impressed with its versatility. Office 365 is, I think, a key to SharePoint's ongoing success, because it makes this impressive product more broadly available to a wider audience.

How big is SharePoint? "The SharePoint business is on fire," Microsoft director Jared Spataro told me after his appearance in the SharePoint Conference keynote address Monday. "It's one of the biggest businesses at Microsoft today."

Spataro told me that the software giant has now sold more than 125 million licenses of the software to more than 65,000 different customers. If SharePoint were a standalone software company, it would be in the top 50 worldwide. And although this happened over 3 years ago, SharePoint was the fastest of Microsoft's businesses to top the $1 billion mark annually, and it has experienced double-digit growth ever since.

Eighty percent of Fortune 500 companies have deployed SharePoint, and more customers have chosen this solution over all other collaboration products and services combined. And customers appear to love it: SharePoint is number one in its category for product satisfaction, in likelihood that customers would recommend it to others, and in awareness and market share.

Aside from sheer numbers, the audience for SharePoint is broadening. Whereas it used to be seen as a departmental solution within enterprises, now these businesses are deploying SharePoint to all of their employees en masse. This, of course, is in addition to the employees at small- and medium-sized businesses that are getting their hands on SharePoint for the first time thanks to Office 365.

The SharePoint audience is also broadening to developers. According to Spataro, more than 700,000 developers have created apps for SharePoint 2010 in the past 12 months, a figure that represents over half of all .NET developers in the world, or about a quarter of all professional developers. And partners, of course, are showing up to fill in the gaps in SharePoint functionality or, more likely, simply taking the product to places its creators never even envisioned. There are more than 200 partners at the SharePoint Conference this week.

For those SharePoint experts who want to really differentiate themselves, Microsoft also announced a new certification this week, called Microsoft Certified Architect (MCA) for SharePoint, which will indicate a higher level of expertise than the existing Microsoft Certified Master (MCM) certification. "Since there's still more SharePoint expert demand than supply, this is a way to differentiate," Spataro noted. "An MCA is SharePoint black belt."

Finally, the big news: As part of an ongoing effort to close the functional gap between its on-premises products and its cloud-based offerings, and as part of a regularly scheduled quarterly update cadence, Microsoft said that it would add Business Connectivity Services (BCS) capabilities to the Office 365 version of SharePoint Online as part of the service's first update. This will allow businesses to build cloud solutions that connect to non–Office 365 online services, including basically any data source outside of Microsoft's cloud.

There's a lot more going on at SharePoint Conference 2011 this week. Be sure to check out the coverage on  SharePoint Pro for the full story.

See Microsoft SharePoint Conference 2011: High Availability, Cloud, Transition Talk