Microsoft is looking to gain ground with user-friendly cloud services that make workers' lives easier, but key elements of the Office 365 roadmap still need improvement, according to experts.
Office 365 is the cloud-based suite of productivity applications that Microsoft is pinning its cloud computing hopes on. It has become a testing ground for new features. But in some cases, it's unclear how Office365 offerings will fare. Indeed, some Office 365 functionality overlaps with -- or even cannibalizes -- traditional SharePoint, which is Microsoft's content management and collaboration software. Since SharePoint is also offered with the Office 365 license, overlapping functionality could create more than a little confusion for users.
At the SharePoint SPTechCon conference in Boston last week, SharePoint expert Benjamin Niaulin, of ShareGate, cited Office 365 Groups as one example in a session on integrating cloud services with on-premises SharePoint.
Touted as a quick and easy alternative to traditional SharePoint team sites, Groups combines elements of Exchange and SharePoint to facilitate informal collaboration among a variety of Microsoft products. Niaulin lauded the concept, but noted that the product still needs to mature.
"Where it's going is a great idea," said Niaulin. "But today, you can tell they just took it out of the oven. It's a little bit squishy in some parts."
Niaulin said, for example, that each "group" comes with a hidden SharePoint team site, which works in the background. While the hidden site doesn't show up on the SharePoint site collections list, it can undermine the user experience.
"If you try to create a team site with the same name as your group, it'll tell you that name has already been taken," Niaulin said. "They're going to change that; it is kind of annoying."
In general, Niaulin described Office 365 as an overarching banner that links numerous Microsoft products together, giving employees additional company-sanctioned options to supplement traditional ECM tools.
But expert opinions on that approach were mixed at the SharePoint conference. While session speakers acknowledged that Office 365 is making strides, they also said that the Microsoft roadmap remains confusing, even redundant, as far as Office 365 cloud features and SharePoint 2016 on-premises.
"Some features in Office 365 are not brand-new. They're just different ways of doing the same thing," said Robert L. Bogue, in his keynote on Aug. 27.
Niaulin described Office 365 Groups as ideal for collaboration that doesn't require ECM features like metadata and retention schedules. The default setting for Groups is that they can be built by anyone in the company, allowing users to configure their own collaboration space that supports interaction through a variety of Microsoft products, including SharePoint, Outlook, Yammer, and OneDrive for Business.
"The user doesn't care what products people are using," Niaulin said. "They just want to see everything in one place."
That's what the Office 365 roadmap purports, but experts indicated that hasn't arrived yet in practice. During another session, Metalogix product manager Adam Levithan described Groups as "a distribution list on steroids," but also advised against large enterprise use, saying it's "still in its infancy stage."
Bogue said Groups remains in limbo, noting it's not among the Office 365 technologies represented by tiles in the home screen.
"Groups didn’t even get a tile," Bogue said.
OneDrive for Business
Other aspects of Office 365 also present some problems for users -- and potentially for the Microsoft roadmap. OneDrive for Business is slated for a prominent file-sharing and management role in the Office365 roadmap, but that scenario hinges on a key upgrade that's scheduled for the second quarter of 2016.
Niaulin described OneDrive for Business as becoming a central access point for files in Office 365, regardless of where they physically reside.
"The word OneDrive is becoming very present for everything having to do with your files," said Niaulin.
But Niaulin cautioned about sync issues with the current version of OneDrive for Business, saying there are "a lot of bad stories" involving lost documents. Microsoft plans to fix those issues with new sync engine. Other upcoming improvements for OneDrive include removing sync limits on libraries and allowing users to sync by folder.
"Right now you have to sync the whole library or nothing," Niaulin said.
Microsoft Delve is a search and discovery tool that pushes content to users based on user identity and activity. Delve is designed to prioritize work and access information intelligently, based on semantically connected assets.
The engine behind Delve is the Office Graph, which tracks user activity and the user role and relationships within an organization. Office Graph uses machine learning under the hood to search documents, email, Yammer conversations and more, and serve it up in Delve display.
Niaulin described Delve as potentially becoming a home-page application, which can provide updates on organizational activity as a quasi-virtual assistant.
But Delve also raises the specter of encroaching on employee privacy. It's also imperfectly engineered, and may push results in a date range that doesn't make sense or require more fine-tuning of its filters. Bogue was skeptical on the business value. "Delve shows you all the things you don't need to know about," he said.
Microsoft Sway is designed to help build Web- and mobile-friendly presentations with ease not characteristic of PowerPoint. Users can pull content locally or from Internet sources, such as OneDrive, YouTube, and Facebook. But the ease of putting together visuals may be offset by adoption rates, which are still low. Bogue described Sway as having a "who cares?" factor.
"Sway is the easiest way to build a website for a vacation that only you went on," said Bogue.
Many of these tools are included with the Office 365 license and experts suggested they may be worth a try. But as far as results, the jury is still out.
Overlap is a problem for the Office 365 roadmap, with offerings like Yammer overlapping with Skype for Business, and Groups overlapping with SharePoint. Similarly, OneDrive for Business, Microsoft's lightweight file storage application, overlaps with basic functionality in SharePoint.
"Microsoft has given us this plan for how to do Office 365," Bogue said. "Has anyone determined that there are gaps? What we need is a blueprint."
Alternatively, Niaulin described Office 365 as offering employees crucial alternatives to traditional ECM tools and shadow IT.
"That's where the future of collaboration is going," he said. "It's to give employees choices, but they're choices the company provides."
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