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Does the SharePoint mobile app encompass today's realities?

Microsoft is making strides in its SharePoint mobile app so that users can do more even easier. But is it enough?

In the 15 years since SharePoint's introduction, the world of collaboration has changed dramatically. The smartphone...

era is firmly at hand. Knowledge workers spend sizable portions of their productive time on portable devices, in lieu of their PCs. Applications like Microsoft SharePoint, Microsoft's enterprise content management application that enables collaboration and document management, have now become more mobile-friendly.

In addition, cloud-based collaborative services are swiftly overtaking on-premises tools, often becoming the de facto tool. The question with the SharePoint mobile app is whether Microsoft has successfully transformed the SharePoint user experience to match the new cloud-first, mobile-first reality.

Cross-platform and multi-device

Any discussion of mobile experiences has to start with device support. For the past couple of years, Microsoft has made a concerted effort to support various platforms, including iOS and Android devices. Microsoft now provides support for Office and various Office365-related applications fairly consistently across iOS, Android and Windows Mobile. This support allows companies and individuals to use any device, while still providing consistent access to SharePoint-based content and services.

At present, the mobile experience among SharePoint services is fragmented.

But support is overwhelmingly in favor of iOS devices. Microsoft produces some 11 different SharePoint and SharePoint-related applications for iOS. Unfortunately, only seven are available to Android mobile phones (only six on tablets) and roughly the same number for Windows mobile devices (including the new Universal apps). To be fair, the core applications, including Office, Outlook and Delve (the new search and discovery tool) are present. What Android users lack are SharePoint-specific applications like the new SharePoint app. They also lack Sway, Power BI and OneDrive for Business. Microsoft has reported that the SharePoint mobile app for Android will be available by the end of the year.

The new SharePoint mobile app

SharePoint's mobile app provides access to traditional library and site functionality from your mobile device. You can connect the SharePoint mobile app to on-premises and Office365 SharePoint instances. Unadulterated (read: uncustomized) sites are presented as a series of libraries and lists. Content within these constructs are shown as many SharePoint users have come to expect. Depending on which actions you want to take, the app opens the content directly or through another app (if you have that app loaded). If, for example, you open a document library, the SharePoint mobile app will show you files by opening the OneDrive for Business app and automatically connect to the library in question. From there, users can manipulate documents, share them or update a limited metadata set (that is, tag content with metadata information).

So, it seems strange that Microsoft released a "new" app for a product that's more than a decade old. Other companies have been producing mobile apps that connect to SharePoint for several years. Infragistics, for example, produces SharePlus. This app provides basic access to sites, lists and document libraries; Microsoft's SharePoint app does not appear to equal the functionality of this third-party application.

It's also unclear where Microsoft will take this new app. In its current state, the experience interacting with SharePoint instances and sites is somewhat inconsistent. If your target site is highly customized, the app may simply display it inside a glorified browser view. From there, interacting with lists and libraries mimic what you'd expect in any browser. Conversely, if your target site is out of the box, you'll be presented with a slimmed-down, deconstructed view of recent files and a dynamic menu of lists and libraries based on the site structure. In the end, the new app is a positive step forward, though still lacking a consistent and compelling experience.

The many SharePoint doors

One trend in the SharePoint world is deconstructionism. While Microsoft doesn't use this term, it describes the ongoing SharePoint evolution. Services and capabilities historically associated with SharePoint are now exposed as separate services within the broader Office365 suite. For example, the concept of SharePoint-based collaborative sites (or team sites) is now reconstituted as Office 365 groups. The My Site documents concept is now OneDrive for Business. Finally, social commenting and discussion features are now found exclusively in the enterprise networking service Yammer; previously released equivalent features in SharePoint have been explicitly disabled. In general, these changes can be positive, though it has consequences for the mobile experience.

At present, the mobile experience among SharePoint services is fragmented. There are 11 different mobile apps for iOS. With just a couple of exceptions, nearly every app represents a different entry point to content and functions within the platform. This isn't a criticism, but it may create confusion.

For example, if you're on an iOS device, you can use the new SharePoint mobile app. This app provides more traditional access to content within the site and library constructs familiar to any SharePoint user. But it's also possible to simply open a document from OneDrive for Business or directly through an Office application, such as Word. If you're trying to locate content a colleague created but you don't know where it's housed, you could use Delve. Again, this is another entry point to content, but spread across actions that involve opening another app. Depending on which app you use to open content, it may require more or fewer taps/clicks.

Looking forward

Over the past couple of years, the changes Microsoft has exhibited are a welcome move for many enterprises. Employees are able to materially operate almost exclusively on mobile devices, with little or no functional fidelity loss when compared with the "full PC" experience.

Unfortunately, the evolution is clearly not complete nor is its end clear. The sheer volume of apps for SharePoint and Office365 creates a confusing web of tools. Each tool may be more or less useful depending on what any individual employee needs to accomplish. Short of concrete usage guidance, knowledge workers may struggle to find the productivity sweet spot they would like to enjoy. As with many years, it's likely we'll see more changes and "upgrades" as Microsoft more fully realizes its nebulous mobile strategy.

Next Steps

SharePoint Online vs. SharePoint on-premises guide

Navigating the Microsoft roadmap

Mobile and social trends in SharePoint

This was last published in September 2016

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