SharePoint, Microsoft's all-purpose collaboration server, has never had strong native functionality for mobile access to its features and content.
First launched in 2001, SharePoint wasn't built for a world in which smartphones and tablets are ubiquitous both at home and at work.
However, CIOs and IT directors whose companies are heavy SharePoint users are increasingly fielding requests from employees who want to tap the product from mobile devices.
That's what happened at AAA Mid-Atlantic, which uses SharePoint 2010. The only way to access SharePoint 2010 documents from outside of the firewall was via a VPN system on employees' laptops.
"It was inconvenient for our executives when they traveled because they'd have to bring both their tablets and laptops," says Ed Klichinsky, IT manager of mobile development at AAA Mid-Atlantic, the AAA motor club that serves Delaware, Maryland, Washington, D.C. and parts of Virginia, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
Like many peers in companies around the world, Klichinsky and his team embarked on a process of evaluating alternatives for expanding and enhancing mobile access to SharePoint.
"SharePoint wasn't built for mobile. Microsoft has been responding to mobile on SharePoint, but the response has been sluggish overall," says Mark Gilbert, a Gartner analyst.
So what's an enterprise IT leader to do?
According to Gilbert, don't necessarily assume that the solution to the problem will be expensive and complicated.
"You don't jump into cost and complexity unless you have to," he says.
That means a first step is to evaluate the new and improved mobile features in SharePoint 2013, the latest version of the product released a few months ago, according to Gilbert.
SharePoint Bible: Your Complete Guide to Microsoft's Collaboration Software ]
While mobile features in the two previous versions--SharePoint 2007 and SharePoint 2010--are clearly insufficient, SharePoint 2013 offers significant improvements.
"Get one of your developers to test the native mobile tools in SharePoint 2013, and if that's good enough for your use case, you're done," Gilbert says.
He estimates that SharePoint 2013 mobile features will meet the current requirements of about half of organizations. Of course, this involves upgrading to SharePoint 2013, which many companies may not be planning to do right away.
If you plan to adopt SharePoint 2013, these are some of the new and improved mobile features you'll encounter:
- A better mobile browsing experience thanks to a new "contemporary view" which renders sites in HTML5 and works with the most recent mobile IE, Safari and Android browsers. It is designed for touch-screen interaction and optimized for tasks like accessing document libraries, lists, wikis and Web parts. The "classic view" for older mobile browsers remains, rendering sites in HTML, as well as the option to display a full desktop view of the site.
- New backend mobile "channels" that automatically rearrange the rendering of a SharePoint site for different mobile devices, augmenting the single default mobile view in SharePoint 2010 that was cumbersome to customize.
- A new capability for SharePoint sites to push notifications out to mobile devices, alerting users about changes, like the addition or modification of content.
- Two new native mobile apps. The SharePoint Newsfeed app gives users access to the people and documents they follow. It's available for Windows Phone and iOS and will be available on Windows 8 by the end of June. An Android version will be available later. The SkyDrive Pro app gives users access to this cloud storage and file sharing service on Windows 8 and iOS. It's due for release before the end of June. A version for Windows Phone 8 is already out.
Other new mobile features in SharePoint 2013 are the capability to add geolocation tags to a list, the capability to view certain types of business intelligence content and improved viewing of Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents with Office Web Apps.
For the many organizations that aren't on SharePoint 2013 yet, or that are on SharePoint 2013 but need more capabilities, there are third- party applications that can help.
Regardless of the tool they choose, CIOs and IT managers have to evaluate the security capabilities of the different options, including native features and their capacity to integrate with third-party security systems, such as MDM (mobile device management) products.
Filling the SharePoint Mobile Gap With Third-Party Apps
The vendors that make these applications have moved to fill in SharePoint's mobile gap, which is still considered by many to be too wide even in the 2013 version.
Making the situation more confusing is the question of how the mobile plans for SharePoint will be impacted by the ongoing integration of the product with Yammer, the enterprise social networking suite Microsoft acquired in mid-2012.
Another element is the small but growing use of SharePoint Online, the version of the product that is hosted by Microsoft and part of the broader Office 365 cloud suite, and how mobile access may vary for it and for SharePoint installed on premises.
No one at Microsoft was available to talk about this, however, the company sent a brief statement via email saying that it is committed to mobile access for SharePoint. "This is a very important area for Microsoft," the statement reads.
H3 Solutions' Mobile Entrée Makes SharePoint More Mobile
After scoping out the market, AAA Mid-Atlantic settled on H3 Solutions' Mobile Entrée, which is installed on SharePoint servers and provides a set of mobile capabilities out-of-the box along with development tools to create custom applications as well.
Klichinsky is happy with Mobile Entrée's out-of-the box capabilities, in particular the capability to let users retrieve documents from SharePoint's document repository and the ability to view business intelligence dashboard data.
It doesn't provide the full access to the SharePoint server that users can get behind the firewall or via remote laptops with VPN, but it provides enough features to allow, for example, traveling executives to pack only their tablet if all they need is provided by Mobile Entrée.
He also likes that the tool works with a variety of mobile devices and operating systems, since AAA Mid-Atlantic gives its employees and executives choices for tablets and smartphones that include iOS, Android, BlackBerry and, soon, Windows Phone 8 devices.
AAA Mid-Atlantic has also taken advantage of the Mobile Entrée development tools to add custom features to the core product and has plans to build a point-of-sale mobile application for employees at its stores.
Klichinsky is also happy with the VPN-less security layer he and his team have layered on top of Mobile Entrée--a Web application firewall.
Joe Herres, executive vice president of products at H3 Solutions, says that while Mobile Entrée works only on SharePoint servers installed on customer premises, the vendor is prepping a slightly different version to run on SharePoint Online.
The version for SharePoint Online will be more geared towards end users, and will be licensed on a per user basis, unlike its main product which is priced per server. The new product will also have a much smaller app development component.
"It's about purchasing the app, running through a wizard and having a premium mobile experience in about five minutes to your SharePoint Online tenancy," Herres says.
More SharePoint Mobile Access Applications Enterprises Can Turn To
According to Gartner's Gilbert, other popular makers of SharePoint mobile access applications include Colligo, Filamente and Infragistics, whose product is called SharePlus.
These applications are designed to improve in particular the document management experience of using SharePoint via various mobile devices.
"SharePoint isn't really built for gestures and swiping on a touch screen. It's not designed for that. Typically SharePoint users are browsing a nested file structure and that's not a lot of fun to do on a mobile device," Gilbert says.
These applications make the experience better, more responsive, in general closer to the expectations of mobile users, he says.
Colligo's Email Manager provides access to SharePoint from Outlook on the desktop, while its Briefcase for iOS product gives access from iPads and iPhones, including the ability to view files, edit files, lists and metadata and syncing capabilities. The Administrator module gives IT professionals management and security controls.
Meanwhile, Infragistic's SharePlus has mobile clients for iOS, Android and BlackBerry Playbook, which offer features like file sync, editing, PDF annotation, managed metadata, and local file structure. A product called SharePlus Enterprise gives IT departments management tools for centralized configuration, deployment and security, among other things.
Filamente has an iOS mobile client for SharePoint and a product called Filamente Enterprise for IT management and control functions.
Another option with broader scope is Harmon.ie, whose mobile applications provide access to SharePoint on premises and to Office 365, Yammer and Office Web Apps. Harmon.ie replicates the mobile user experience on the desktop via its plug ins for Outlook and Notes that link SharePoint with email.
"Our approach is to provide access anytime, anywhere, with the same user experience on the desktop, mobile and the cloud," says David Lavenda, Harmon.ie's vice president of marketing and product strategy.
Beyond these options, there are products whose focus isn't primarily to provide mobile access to SharePoint, but that do it as part of a broader mission.
That's the case of document storage and file sharing vendors, whose applications integrate with SharePoint and feature mobile access. These would include Box and Accellion.
Likewise, enterprise social networking (ESN) suites that connect with SharePoint can also offer mobile access to it, including NewsGator's and Jive Software's. Naturally, this mobile access would be heavily slanted towards social collaboration capabilities.
Read more about applications in CIO's Applications Drilldown.