When Microsoft launched SharePoint 2010 over a year ago, they promoted an improved mobile experience. This new mobile experience promised better connectivity through devices like phones. However, is it any better and can any organization realistically use what’s provided out of the box? The answer, for most firms, is no. 

Much like the rest of SharePoint however, the mobile components of SharePoint 2010 can provide a foundation. This foundation comes in varying forms. Organizations hoping to connect their mobile workforce to content and/or functionality in SharePoint will want to understand what is and is not mobile in 2010.

What is Mobile?

Historically, creating a mobile experience meant providing either a WAP-enabled site (remember those) or an exceedingly limited HTML-based application. In both cases, the devices used by many people had very limited screen real estate, couldn't support rich content (e.g. Flash) and had severely limited JavaScript capability.

Since then, mobile devices have come a long way. The advent of better smartphones and far better pure-tablet devices create loads of enhanced “mobile” possibilities. In very real terms, mobile in the year 2011 still means creating a unique experience. However, this experience is largely through specialized HTML interfaces (for less well-endowed smartphones like Blackberry) or an application (e.g. through iTunes App, Droid and/or the Zune store for the Windows Phone 7 devices).

These experiences aren’t simply watered down versions of their larger, PC-formatted cousins, but tools that provide the “heart” of the application in an easy-to-consume mobile package.

What Does SharePoint Provide?

Microsoft delivered a pretty radically improved SharePoint platform in 2010. Unfortunately, a vastly improved mobile experience wasn’t front and center. Instead, Microsoft gave us a slightly improved version of their watered-down HTML-based interface layered with more platform capabilities.

This mobile interface is enabled largely by default and is as easy as browsing to your SharePoint site using your mobile phone. What you get is a document and list-centric view of your site. The mobile site provides basic access to list items and documents, but little else. In fact, it doesn't even allow for any real interaction with those items or files, save viewing them. Microsoft has published some good guidance on what you can expect.  

Even at a time when iPhone sales were skyrocketing, Droid devices were taking off and Windows Phone and BlackBerrys were well established, Microsoft did little to capitalize on their capabilities. In fact, given the explosion of the new tablets from Apple, Samsung and Motorola, Microsoft clearly missed a grand opportunity to further embed SharePoint in the information worker psyche.

Controlling the Default Experience

Even though the default mobile experience isn’t much to talk about, to Microsoft’s credit, they do provide mechanisms for controlling/improving the experience a bit. This control starts with the “compact.browser” file (located in App_Browsers directory of your SharePoint’s IIS directory). This file determines what device browser agents are considered “mobile.” If the browser agent is listed, SharePoint will automatically redirect to the mobile URL (http://[YOUR_SITE]/m or http://[YOUR_SITE]/?mobile=1). If not, you are directed to the standard interface (or the one you’ve created). You can find a list of “out of the box” supported browsers listed in the Technet blog article listed previously.

The magic, though, isn’t the automatic redirection, but rather the various files that present this experience. For example, the file “mbllists.aspx” is the default page for viewing lists. It’s constructed using a collection of various mobile templates and uses the browser capabilities file to determine how to render for specific devices.

For the more technically inclined, you can also manipulate the default mobile page. Microsoft provides guidance on how to accomplish updating the basic interfaces on MSDN. The changes are largely limited to the master page and theme. However, for those seeking only to stick their toe in the pool of mobile experiences, this is a good start.

In addition to basic overall interfaces, SharePoint 2010 introduced the concept of a “mobile” view for lists and libraries (the views leveraged by the interfaces). This was one of the significant changes in 2010 -- giving business users and administrators the ability to create mobile-specific and/or compatible views. If you’ve loaded Mobile Office 2010 or the views, you will have the ability to view and/or edit documents from your mobile device.

Options for Creating your Own Mobile Experience

If neither the default nor customized experiences fulfill your requirements, there are a few mechanisms available to create wholly new and more robust mobile experiences. They come in the form of Site Variations and/or web services.

Using Site Variations to create a unique mobile experience is largely targeted at developing HTML-based interfaces. This feature is generally used for creating multi-lingual sites. However, the routing logic and content replication doesn’t pre-dispose only language site use. In fact, Variations are really just a mechanism to create managed, duplications of a primary site (e.g. a mobile site).

In this way, your mobile site can also co-exist with your language sites (e.g. create a Variation label “Mobile” or “Mobile zh-CN”). All that’s required is to update the routing logic contained in “VariationsRoot.ASPX” to include trapping a mobile browser and disable the default mobile redirect.

If you’re interested in more than just a mobile-formatted HTML-based site, you can leverage web services to create your mobile app. One of the bigger changes in SharePoint 2010 came in Microsoft’s exposure of the platform through various web services. Both REST and SOAP-based services are available.

If you like open source, there’s even a CodePlex project that supports a jQuery extension specifically for SharePoint. Through the services interfaces, you can create a very robust device-specific application for interfacing with your SharePoint environment. Searching on iTunes, you’ll find a number of examples already created. Microsoft has even baked basic SharePoint interaction into the new Windows Phone 7 OS.

Bringing It All Together

On balance, if you can “live” with document and list item-centric basic access, the standard SharePoint interface will work for you. If, however, you require a more robust interface, Microsoft has provided you the necessary platform. Like most things SharePoint, the out of the box experience is probably more misleading than it is informative and you’ll need a developer on staff to take advantage of the real capabilities of the platform.

Editor's Note: For more articles on the mobile topic, see Mobile Enterprise.