How Mobile is Changing the Use of SharePoint?

Mobile Man / Friday, November 06, 2015

You only need go back a six or seven years and ‘mobile computing’ was still ‘the future’. Tablets didn’t really exist, certainly as we know them now (the first iPad arrived in 2010), and phones were very different beasts. Few, but a hard core of Blackberry wielding super-fans, would have described the brick in their pocket as a productivity tool. We played games on our phones, sent text messages, and struggled with a very basic and slow moving Internet - that was about it.

Effective mobile productivity was an even more remote proposition in the workplace. Hard to believe, but here was a time when you simply couldn’t sync a Dropbox full of content to a device, scan documents, or create PowerPoint slides. Phones were just for calling Michael in Accounts and chasing paperwork over at a distant office.

Fast forward to today however and things are very different. So different in fact that one has to force oneself to take a step back and realize just how powerful the typical phone has become. As an unscientific test I had a quick look at the apps I am currently using:

  • Email – Now a core part of nearly every phone.
  • Camera – I can take photos and videos, in incredible quality, and share them direct from my phone.
  • Maps – Not only does my phone know where I am, but it can direct me pretty much anywhere in the world (with fairly accurate time estimates and public transport information).
  • Wallet – I can now pay for my travel and purchases directly from my phone
  • Office apps – I can open, read and edit all major office file formats
  • File sync – I have all my personal and work files synced to my phone, available when and where I need them.

Impact on Office 365 and SharePoint

The last two apps are very clearly work use cases, and my phone is now a powerhouse of productivity in the office. So how have the old titans of the enterprise, tools like SharePoint, responded to this ‘mobile first’ world?

Well the most obvious answer to that question is Office 365. Office 365 is, in part Microsoft answer to mobile. But before exploring that a little further, let’s go back to the early days of SharePoint.

SharePoint’s relationship with mobile has been fractured to say the least. Before SharePoint 2007 there was little consideration at all. SharePoint 2007 (or Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007 as we had to call it then) improved things a little, with stripped down mobile pages designed for speed. The 2010 release was an incremental improvement, but it took the 2013 version for real improvements. A much better mobile experience was provided, with Device Channels able to push content in different formats to different devices. Push notifications were supported, and the first version of Office Web Apps allowed documents to be viewed (if not edited).

With the 2013 release we also got the first set of mobile apps, though the basic (and now deprecated) ‘Newsfeed’ app wasn’t of too much use. Things improved as the likes of OneDrive for Business, Office, Yammer and Skype joined the fold.

A new way of thinking about SharePoint and mobile

But it was really the creation of Office 365, originally known as Business Productivity Online Services (BPOS), that crystalized Microsoft’s vision of how mobile could change SharePoint.

For many years SharePoint was about ‘document management’. You uploaded files, stored them in SharePoint, and edited them in a disconnected Office application like Word. With Office Web Apps, and then Office 365 itself, Microsoft has developed a more joined up experience. Office 365 is now more rounded, in terms of documents certainly (let’s leave its Outlook/Email and Lync/Messaging elements to side for another post). Users can store documents in SharePoint Online as they always did, or in OneDrive for Business. But now they can edit them in a connected instance of their traditional Word application on the desktop. Or they can use the very impressive Word Online in a browser (including mobile browsers). Or they can use the iPad app, or the Android variant. No matter how users want to work with their documents, they can do it in a single environment, with a single subscription and using a single license. Unfortunately, not all functionalities of SharePoint are available as native mobile apps, so the "mobile" SharePoint experience is still too fragmented to live up to what users are presented with in a web SharePoint environment.

Office 365 didn’t start off as super mobile friendly. It took a more unified internal Microsoft (started by Steve Ballmer and accelerated by Satya Nadella) to realize this. But Office 365 today is the manifestation of how mobile has changed SharePoint.

Where does this leave SharePoint?

Indeed, SharePoint has almost become a victim of its adaptability to a more mobile use case. Looking at Office 365 these days and you don’t even see the term ‘SharePoint’). Those of us that have been around long enough know that ‘Sites’ is SharePoint Online (and we still recognize that ‘S’ icon) but it is much more of a platform tool than a product in its own right. This much is true online, on-premises things are a little different and the upcoming 2016 release shows SharePoint is still a force to be reckoned with.

Users are the winners

Ultimately users have won out. The devices in their pockets have gotten exponentially more powerful. Microsoft have responded, albeit after a few missteps, with a revamped SharePoint that supports some of these new ways of working. But full SharePoint capabilities are not yet available as a true native mobile experience.

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