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Mobile SharePoint options: Microsoft finally delivers?

Microsoft is making good on a mobile SharePoint experience, but users still need to choose a path to get there.

The mobile SharePoint experience -- or lack thereof -- has been a popular target for slings and arrows in recent...

years. For any cross-section of SharePoint mobile users, you'll likely hear a range of commentary, from, "It's terrible," to, "There isn't one."

But Microsoft has taken note. As SharePoint 2016 is poised for release, subscribers to Office365 or users of on-premises SharePoint should see that Microsoft is making good on a mobile SharePoint experience. Unfortunately, that experience doesn't come in a single interface. It's also important to understand SharePoint's history to see the platform's future.

What is SharePoint?

While SharePoint is now a decade and a half into its life, the platform is often little understood. What started as a pretty terrific Web-based file sharing application in 2001 has morphed into a vast platform with functionality far exceeding its humble origins. SharePoint is now regularly compared with cloud-based file-sharing systems like Google Docs, as well as more traditional enterprise content management systems like Documentum and FileNet and collaboration tools like Huddle. In fact, it has been argued that there is no other toolset like SharePoint -- not because there aren't tools that cover some of SharePoint's functionality, but that there are no tools that do everything SharePoint can do.

To be fair, SharePoint can't realistically do everything; and some have compared it to a mediocre Swiss Army knife that tries and fails to do so. But Microsoft has rightly created an ecosystem surrounding SharePoint that creates that impression. For example, Google Docs (including Sheets, Slides and Forms) is really better compared with Office (and Office Web Applications). Huddle could be compared with a portion of SharePoint, namely internally facing file and information-sharing features. Meanwhile, Dropbox is more equivalent to Microsoft OneDrive, which provides a cloud-based file repository. In the end, SharePoint has become (nay, continues to be) a collection of branded or nonbranded features that add up to a collective platform. As such, discussing the SharePoint mobile experience requires us to view the platform through a multidimensional lens.

Working with files

As of the 2013 version of SharePoint, OneDrive for Business is the primary place to work with files. For SharePoint veterans, this may sound like heresy -- sites, lists and libraries are the typical storage and collaboration paradigm. But OneDrive for Business is, in fact, SharePoint under the covers. All the features we've come to adore (and sometime abhor) in SharePoint reside in OneDrive for Business. You can create, share and update a document (fully versioned) through the mobile app.

Here, the mobile SharePoint experience for working with OneDrive for Business-hosted files is quite good. There's a OneDrive for Business client available for iOS, Android and Windows. Users can connect to the cloud-hosted version or an on-premises implementation. Further, access to the full range of functionality is available regardless of access method. Unfortunately, access to some editorial functions like metadata values is not available. Additionally, editing documents does require Office mobile, which is available on iOS, Android and Windows platforms.

Social and short messaging

Since 2007, Microsoft has slowly introduced "social" features into SharePoint. In 2010 and 2013, Microsoft invested heavily in social concepts like ratings, "like" indicators and status updates. Simultaneously, it acquired Yammer, an enterprise social networking application and began incorporating it into SharePoint. As Microsoft has evolved Office365, the Yammer-oriented status/discussion features have largely overtaken or replaced the native social features; last year, Microsoft disabled native SharePoint social features and integrated Yammer.

With SharePoint 2016, it's clear Microsoft has continued the historical trend of offering a collection of apps to address a full range of collaboration needs.

As with OneDrive, the mobile experience comes via dedicated applications. Across Android, iOS and Windows mobile devices there are dedicated apps for legacy social features and Yammer. If your firm uses SharePoint's social features, users can install the SharePoint Newsfeed app. The app allows users to update status, track their "follows" and interact with others through profiles.

If your company uses Yammer, there's a dedicated Yammer application. Like the Newsfeed app, the Yammer app provides visibility into the various groups within your organization. Users can update status, search for content and post files or pictures. The experience is roughly equivalent to an enterprise Facebook or LinkedIn experience. Further, the Yammer app can be associated with different enterprises, so users can participate in both external and internal groups; security separates the message threads and there is no ability to cross-post today.

Unfortunately, for many organizations, employees may have to use both. There are profile-oriented features that require the Newsfeed app. But if you've fully disabled discussions and other social features in SharePoint in lieu of Yammer, users will also need the Yammer app. It's not clear whether Microsoft will continue to maintain both apps or combine them in the future.

'Native' SharePoint interaction

Unlike other portions of the mobile SharePoint experience, the more native and familiar Web-based interaction lacks a mobile-specific application. Historically, Microsoft has created a "mobile-friendly" Web experience. This friendly version was a stripped-down, link-heavy way to get at files and list items. The experience was never that good, but it could get you to a file or list item in a pinch.

Unfortunately, the latest release of SharePoint 2013 stays true to the mobile-friendly approach. The interface is more dynamic and specific actions, such as opening in a document, can activate other mobile apps. For example, clicking on a Word document in a library can automatically download to your device and open in Word -- similar to the desktop experience. This approach is less desirable than the app experience in other dimensions of the platform.

Looking at 2016 and beyond

The story about SharePoint in 2016 is a little like "Fight Club": You don't talk about SharePoint. As this article implies, the story about the mobile experience is really more expansive than SharePoint. While the platform is at the center of the constellation, it's really only a part of the larger collaboration and content management narrative Microsoft is developing.

Microsoft has gone through somewhat of a company revolution over the past 18 months. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has initiated transformation at the company. As a result, Microsoft has begun releasing software across platforms and truly experimenting with new modalities -- especially in the collaboration space largely occupied by SharePoint. One example is Sway. It's a Web-based "story telling" solution that is now included with Office 365. Like its brethren, there's a mobile app as well as a Web-based interface. Another example is PowerBI. It, too, has a mobile experience and is part of the overall Office 365 offering.

Is either offering SharePoint-related? Not exactly. However, the trend is that Microsoft is slowly blending and rearranging functionality across various collaboration and file management features to create more of a composite tool landscape, and their mobile strategy seems to be following suit. With SharePoint 2016, it's clear Microsoft has continued the historical trend of offering a collection of apps to address a full range of collaboration needs.

You'll have to judge whether the Redmond, Wash., giant has been able to paint a more cohesive picture.

Next Steps

Differences between SharePoint 2013 and SharePoint 2016

SharePoint 2016 debut is solid, if not stunning

The future of SharePoint is hybrid cloud -- for now

This was last published in October 2015

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