Are SharePoint 2013 mobile features up to snuff?

SharePoint 2013 mobile features have made strides, but the lack of responsive design capability and other factors are still shortcomings.

With SharePoint 2013, Microsoft introduced new capabilities and various improvements. Among the most badly needed were those related to mobile device support.

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Although the previous release, SharePoint 2010, offered support for a variety of mobile devices, the mobile experience was lacking, to say the least. SharePoint 2010 added myriad new features that could be accessed through desktop browsers, but that experience did not carry over to mobile platforms. Although one would probably expect a mobile SharePoint session to have limitations given the realities of the smartphone environment, such as small screens and limited bandwidth, the mobile SharePoint experience did not even attempt to mimic the desktop experience. Many screens were text-only and offered bare-minimum functionality. The experience was straight out of the 1990s.

Updated SharePoint 2013 mobile features

Thankfully, SharePoint 2013 has vastly improved the mobile experience. One major improvement is the inclusion of the new contemporary view, which is for mobile devices that support HTML5. This approach provides a richer experience than was available in SharePoint 2010. For mobile users with older devices that do not support HTML5, SharePoint defaults to the classic view. For a comparison of contemporary and classic views, check out Microsoft's site.

The contemporary view is a great step in the right direction for Microsoft. It provides a middle ground between classic view and the full-screen user interface. In the next SharePoint release, however, Microsoft should make contemporary view more easily customizable and facilitate building custom platforms on top of it.

Microsoft needs to incorporate responsive design into the next version of SharePoint.

While the contemporary view provides a better experience than SharePoint 2010 delivered, it does not always render pages optimally. Every mobile device model has a different display resolution. For example, Microsoft allows Windows Phone 8 device manufacturers to choose from a variety of supported resolutions. Similarly, a Windows Phone device is likely to have a different display resolution than an iPhone.  The differences between device resolutions can be problematic because websites display differently on different devices.

Responsive design and SharePoint 2013 shortcomings for mobile

Web developers have adopted responsive design to address this problem. The Web design approach creates fluid, dynamic mobile sites that can detect and adjust to each mobile browser's unique capabilities.

Unfortunately, SharePoint 2013 does not use responsive design, which means the mobile browsing experience varies from one device type to the next. It is possible to make publishing sites semi-responsive, but SharePoint as a whole was never intended to provide responsive content.

So how is it possible to make publishing sites semi-responsive? In SharePoint 2013, Microsoft introduced a new feature called device channels. Channels enable a publishing site to be rendered in different ways, for different devices. But there are two problems with this approach.

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The first is that device channels work only with publishing sites, not SharePoint sites as a whole. The second is that making a publishing site responsive involves a lot of work. While a true responsive site adjusts dynamically, using SharePoint channels requires the administrator to map site content to device-specific master pages, style sheets and page layouts.

The SharePoint 2010 experience was straight out of the 1990s.

Most Microsoft customers are probably willing to overlook this since SharePoint 2013 provides so many improvements to mobile users, but Microsoft needs to incorporate responsive design into the next version of SharePoint. Of course, you can build a responsive SharePoint today. A CodePlex project provides an open source technology for SharePoint responsive design.

Although SharePoint 2013's mobile experience has room for improvement, Microsoft got several things right in SharePoint 2013 mobile. Office Web Apps have improved Office document viewing on mobile devices. SharePoint 2010 allowed for the viewing of Microsoft Office documents, but SharePoint 2013 uses a standalone Office Web Apps server with views specifically designed to provide the best possible rendering of Microsoft Office documents on smartphones.

Microsoft also perfected push notifications. SharePoint 2013 allows users to register their mobile device with SharePoint, which makes it possible for SharePoint to send notifications to a user's mobile device, such as a certain SharePoint list.

Still room for mobile SharePoint improvements

Microsoft has done a lot to enable mobility in SharePoint 2013. The user experience is improved compared with SharePoint 2010, but there is still room for improvement. With mobile devices now gaining ground over PC sales in some markets, it is a safe to assume Microsoft will continue to focus on additional mobile site improvements in the next version of SharePoint.

This was first published in January 2014

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