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Is mobile SharePoint ready for prime time?

Despite a lackluster track record for mobile SharePoint, is SharePoint 2013 now ready for mobile prime time?

Before Wi-Fi was ubiquitous, a home healthcare company in the Midwest gathered data from patients in home care programs. The nurses who gathered the data did so with laptops -- which was awkward and difficult while standing and maneuvering with patients. Having to plug into a phone jack to transmit the data didn't help.

Now we have the access -- Wi-Fi everywhere, and connection options beyond -- and we have the ease of use (we hold our smartphones and type into them with one hand, even when we shouldn't). All we lack is software that makes sense in the field.

SharePoint to the rescue?

To date, Microsoft's efforts in adapting SharePoint functionality to the mobile universe have been halfhearted at best. The reasons are myriad, but we can assume that it never occurred to the folks in Redmond that content management and collaboration -- two of SharePoint's central functions -- would be carried out by workers who are away from the office. Six years into the mobile device era, Microsoft has had its wake-up call.

To date, Microsoft's efforts in adapting SharePoint functionality to the mobile universe have been halfhearted.

Revelations came from several high-profile executives in the Fortune 500 who, having made massive investments in enterprise-level SharePoint 2010 -- and its business intelligence and dashboarding functionality in particular -- discovered that their managers were toting laptops around, in addition to tablets, so they could access their SharePoint sites remotely via VPN.

From a functionality standpoint, SharePoint on mobile devices doesn't necessarily need to catch up with the state of the art in tablet apps overnight, but a few key tricks are essential:

  • Data entry ability to painlessly capture information and send it to a content management system (CMS)
  • Easy access to dashboard metrics
  • Pain-free Community Sites (why have them at all if you can use them only at your desk?)
  • Field access to CMS content

Talking to the cloud

Any of the above tasks and features from a mobile platform requires a SharePoint Online (or Office 365) deployment. Unless you have the time and patience to set up public-facing SharePoint purely for the convenience of your organization's employees, your go-to option is to pass information to and from cloud servers, not your CMS (which, if you've got things right, is buried under a mile of network security). The convergence between SharePoint mobile and the cloud is by design; Microsoft's idea of optimization eliminates many obstacles in one stroke.

SharePoint for mobile also marries with Microsoft's cloud strategy -- for example, editing documents on mobile devices, which is now possible in SharePoint. You can have read and write access to files with limited editing capabilities. But to enable these mobile features, you need an Office 365 license.

This is a good and a bad thing.

SharePoint lists

While you can build custom Web parts for data entry or set up and deploy it via InfoPath, the SharePoint data entry method that's easiest to set up and administrate is your old friend, the SharePoint list. Remember that SharePoint lists are, under the hood, SQL tables, so it's the cleanest data capture, architecturally.

The downside is that once you've pulled up your SharePoint site, entered your data, and dumped it to the cloud, it still may need to be imported into the actual CMS, depending on the nature of the data and what you do with it, once you've got it. But if it does, it makes more sense to build that bridge on the back end than on the front, and Microsoft's architecture pretty much requires it, in any case.

Another downside: Lists in SharePoint Online are limited to 5,000 items. In an explicitly transactional architecture, that's not a deal-breaker, but it's something you'd need to design around.

Driving the dashboard

Many years of effort have gone into the Microsoft business intelligence stack at this point, and folding PerformancePoint into SharePoint with the 2010 release was a late but smart decision. Concise, meaningful metrics make their way from your organization's core data to SharePoint-hosted dashboards, and easy field access to those metrics is desirable at many levels.

This can work well in a SharePoint Online deployment. The metrics you want to dashboard-originate in the bowels of a data warehouse, but they get scrubbed and bundled into data marts and report servers and other manageable structures by the time SharePoint taps into them. And uploading those sources into Office 365 (particularly in enterprise plans) is perfectly doable.

Facebook, mark II

Mobile Facebook is now ubiquitous, and if you're leveraging Community Sites in the office, it makes sense to make them mobile, too. After all, one of the defining features of social media is constant access to our virtual community.

Community Sites are primarily for communication and interaction and generally won't require access to an entire CMS. The content that is most useful in a Community Sites context can be exported to Office 365.

And as for full field access to the CMS, that's a problem if it's as big as most tend to be. Despite the vast amounts of storage Microsoft has available in its Office 365 plans, the practicality of hosting your organization's CMS off-premises is dicey. SharePoint Online is more for the public than the enterprise, and that's a different kind of content. So the most common solution to a mobile-ready CMS is probably going to be a limited export of on-premises content to Office 365, with lots of stuff left behind. (Note also that SharePoint Online is limited to a single public site collection, which is another set of problems, content-wise.)

On balance, however, SharePoint in the field now (and for the first time) makes sense and is relatively convenient. The worst of it is a few design decisions, but you're thinking in that direction anyway.

If we can sum up the state of the SharePoint mobile art in a sentence, that sentence would be, it's the beneficiary of perfect timing. The cloud is opening up just as HTML5 is arriving, and that makes mobile SharePoint a smart choice. There are still some downsides, but SharePoint is finally in the mobile game for real.

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