Dear Microsoft: Step up mobile SharePoint development

Microsoft has been dragged kicking and screaming into the mobile era, but it needs to step up mobile SharePoint development.

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Mobile computing is here to stay. And mobile interfaces are the future, in personal and business computing.

Scott RobinsonScott Robinson

It has snuck up on us, but the numbers are telling. According to Gartner, desktop computer sales have declined to nearly half what they were a decade ago. During that same time period, laptop sales quadrupled. But over the past two years, tablet sales have risen sharply, while laptop sales have begun to decrease.

The reason is obvious: As cloud storage proliferates and as users young and old acclimate to mobile devices, people are now buying tablets instead of laptops.

And for SharePoint administrators, the question is how will Microsoft handle mobile SharePoint development to make the platform more user-friendly?

Microsoft's big mistakes

Redmond's strategy of building its enterprise stack through judicious reuse of last year's innovations and integration of all of its server-based technologies with the desktop brought Microsoft to the forefront of business computing over the past 15 years. As business users have enthusiastically embraced computing on the go, Microsoft's UI technology and desktop operating systems have lagged farther and farther behind, even as its server technologies have become increasingly sophisticated.

Microsoft has been dragged kicking and screaming into the mobile era.

On some fronts, Microsoft has made a successful effort to stay in the game. Office 365 competes with Google Apps and is an inspired bid, as most business users have fluency in Office desktop apps. But Redmond was late to the mobile OS party, with a clear miss of Windows 8. Its Surface RT tablet, intended to bring a touch version of Office into the mobile marketplace, is a distant runner-up behind the iPad. And Microsoft's smartphone misadventure was an unmitigated disaster.

Microsoft now stands at a crossroads, surrounded on all sides by able competitors and imprisoned somewhat between its behemoth server technology stack, the growing cloud and the critical need to reinvent the face of its applications. Microsoft has been dragged kicking and screaming into the mobile era. Now it needs to update SharePoint development to really embrace the mobile revolution.

SharePoint in the hand

SharePoint offers the one-stop shopping that businesses need.

It's critical that Microsoft get its next mobile steps right. SharePoint 2013 is a major step forward, exploiting the Office utility, the cloud and extensive social media features to bring the enterprise in line with consumer tendencies. In an enterprise universe that is increasingly about easy, device-agnostic access to content, SharePoint offers the one-stop shopping that businesses need.

What, then, can companies using SharePoint 2013 do to make SharePoint's interface more mobile-friendly? As we await a release that offers the much-needed simplification of the user interface, here are some fixes that users will embrace.

Enable the contemporary view. Though imperfect, this view renders SharePoint as HTML5 in all the major mobile browsers: Safari 4.0 and up, Android 4.0 and up, and Mobile IE 9.0 and up. This view is content-oriented, allowing rapid access to SharePoint lists and documents and reducing the number of steps needed to get to them. For situations where the view is too limited, a control is available to render the full PC view.

Use device channels. This innovation is ahead of the industry curve. The device channel feature allows a single SharePoint content publishing site to be optimally rendered for the target device or browser. The site and its contents need to be created only once, but can be remapped for specific devices, based on the user agent string.

For more on SharePoint 2013:

Is SharePoint mobile good enough?

Six not-so-silent killers of SharePoint BI projects

Predictions for R2 improvements

Use notifications and mobile alerts. Most people get texts, Facebook and other social media notifications on their smartphones. Configuring SharePoint to send out notifications and alerts allows users to know when lists have changed, when new content is available or old content has been modified. This is especially valuable for users of intranet-only SharePoint deployments, where access from the outside world is difficult or unavailable; instead of users having to be logged into SharePoint to know what's going on, these features proactively keep them informed.

These features don't get Microsoft out of its self-imposed prison. Redmond needs to embrace a new state of mind and realize that the future of business computing is in services, and agnostic access to those services is the consumer's first choice. It will be difficult for Microsoft to become more generic, but Google and Apple are doing it, and they already have quite a lead. Microsoft has plenty to offer in the services arena. If it can dumb down the front end, it can get back in the race.

This was first published in March 2014

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