Going Mobile with SharePoint: Harsh Realities vs. Bright Prospects
The year 2016 promises to be a turning point for SharePoint adepts longing to see the anticipated rising of SharePoint mobile apps. The new iOS version has been already released providing users with the access to their corporate portals and team sites from iPhones and iPads. So while Microsoft keeps working on Android and Windows Phone universal versions and the SharePoint community is waiting to see all the promised apps, we offer to make a little trip to the world of the mobile SharePoint and show it as it is, warts and all, in order to understand which possibilities the platform offers for those companies that have already put SharePoint mobile development onto their agendas.
Mobile SharePoint over time
To understand where SharePoint mobility is now, it’s reasonable to look back at the very beginning and discover how the platform’s capabilities changed over time.
The SharePoint mobile version, or better to say, its absence, was among users’ top disappointments. This mobile gap actually goes deep into the platform’s beginnings. When it first appeared on the IT market, namely in 2001, the world was only making the first steps towards mobile technologies. At the time, SharePoint didn’t pretend to be mobile-friendly as it was just unnecessary. However, it may seem surprising that in 2016 users are still waiting for a mobile app, while SharePoint’s younger brother Microsoft Dynamics CRM, born in 2003, already had a precise tablet-oriented strategy in 2013.
An improved mobile experience. Together with the breathtaking development of mobile technologies and users wishing to see their corporate intranets on mobile devices, Microsoft made the first brave step towards a mobile SharePoint with the release of its 2010 version and officially claimed an improved mobile experience. Unfortunately, this improved experience turned to be mostly far-fetched and focused on the opportunity to easier browse a SharePoint site on a mobile phone, along with getting access to list items and documents, but hardly anything else.
A step towards responsive design. The next attempt to go mobile was made by Microsoft with the release of SharePoint 2013. The platform got such new features as device channels, push notifications and location services, as well as Office Web Apps integration. The biggest improvement came with the optimized mobile browser experience and 3 possible browsing views (contemporary, classic and full-screen). However, mobile features in the true sense of the word didn’t turn into SharePoint’s strong side.
This quick historical overview proves that SharePoint’s mobile capabilities are more than modest, which can make you ask the next natural question.
Maybe users just don’t need a mobile SharePoint?
With SharePoint mobile technologies going so slow, it’s easy to think that users just don’t need this mobile experience. It’s true that SharePoint was created as a web application to assist users in their office activities. But don’t employees need SharePoint intranet outside their workstation? Definitely, they do. Today’s working pace often requires employees to be constantly involved into business processes, so a mobile SharePoint app could ensure:
Uninterrupted working cycle. A mobile version is the only opportunity enabling users to work out of their offices. People cannot be just tied to their chairs and computers as they go to meetings, have business trips and sometimes fall ill. Many cannot afford dropping out of the working process because of these circumstances. With a mobile app, a user can stay tuned to working activities at any time and in any location.
Intensive collaboration. Collaboration is a top important goal made possible by a corporate intranet. When teams are working on a project, every member should stay connected. Falling out of the team work sometimes means to lose time, clients’ loyalty and, at worst, fail the entire project. A mobile app not only helps employees to keep in touch, but also connects users located in different countries and time zones.
Testing SharePoint for iOS
With the new SharePoint mobile app for iOS released, we just couldn’t pass by and decided to get a firsthand experience of fresh capabilities, in order to see if the promised functionality meets the reality.
At the moment, the version 1.1 offers to:
- view and share SharePoint sites that employees visit frequently or follow
- access sites and portals functioning in an organization
- see users’ recent activities, files they are working on, as well as their connections
- search for employees, corporate SharePoint sites and files
As you can see, for now the mobile app provides a pretty limited functionality that includes exclusively viewing capabilities. To start working with documents, users will have to additionally install the Microsoft OneDrive app allowing to read and edit files.
To benefit from the app, SharePoint portals’ owners should also keep in mind that their solution should have responsive design, so that the app could display it properly. However, even responsive design is not a 100% panacea. Our experience showed that dealing with a customized portal was not an easy task since some of the portal’s parts (such as discussion boards) were just torn into pieces with every entry having different style and leaving no possibilities to add comments or start a new conversation.
Well, our conclusion: the first mobile app still looks raw and needs further improvements in order to be really valuable. We do hope that in the near future SharePoint’s mobile incarnation will offer more vital features such as content editing and will handle custom solutions better.
What is the plan B?
Since currently SharePoint’s mobile prospects are not clear, companies should look for an alternative way to make their SharePoint solutions mobile-friendly.
There are at least 2 alternative ways to let a mobile SharePoint enter your enterprise:
- Acquire a mobile app offered by third-party vendors, which will have much wider functionality than the released one.
- Get a customized solution. Here you have two opportunities: either to adapt your existing web solution to mobile devices by configuring mobile views or to create custom responsive design (including display templates for different screen resolutions), then to apply the design to standard SharePoint styles using JQuery UI and CCS.
Either option will require additional investments but will allow employees to use a fully functional version of their SharePoint solutions on their mobile devices. At the beginning of your mobile project, a SharePoint consultant may help you to address a range of your concerns.
Should I keep a full desktop functionality? Usually the first answer is: “Yes, sure, if I want my users to be satisfied and have a desktop-like experience”. However, in reality, it’s always better to start SharePoint mobile development with defining precise business objectives that the future app/mobile version will help to achieve. A thorough analysis of users’ needs will help you to understand which functionality is crucial. E.g. your sales managers may need only collaboration features, while a procurement department will mostly want to access and share documents.
Will it be available on all devices? Well, yes. If you decide to take up a ready-to-go mobile app, you will have to choose a vendor that provides a universal app. If you prefer to build up a mobile version, you will have to think of SharePoint views to make your solution work smoothly in browsers. In both cases users will be able to access their SharePoint solutions from all devices, which is an optimal option for companies with the BYOD policy.
Will be corporate data protected? Going mobile always means to take some risk and face the challenge of data protection. Adopting a mobile version or an app, you should be ready to foresee precise tactics for such situations as device losses, data leaks and unsecure file sharing. You can also think of adopting an enterprise mobility management solution to ensure constant monitoring of mobile devices dealing with corporate content.
Looking into the future
Though SharePoint has already passed a long way to become mobile-friendly, there are still a lot of things to improve. The release of the first mobile app caused a stir, but it turned out to offer a very limited functionality, which means that it’s not yet easy to go mobile with SharePoint. One of the quickest ways to finally take a full-fledged SharePoint site or intranet in your pocket is to configure mobile views (for those companies who already use SharePoint solutions) or to develop a customized solution (for the ones that just start their projects), so that you don’t need to wait for the platform to catch up with your company’s needs.
By Sergei Golubenko, SharePoint Solution Architect at ScienceSoft