Mobile Enterprise: Building a Mobile App for SharePoint
With the recent mobile device explosion, we are seeing business users becoming increasingly more mobile. Many companies want to make the most of their SharePoint investments by giving their employees mobile access to important documents and content stored in SharePoint.

Executives and business travelers want to have instant access to their content while on the go. In today's fast-paced world, clients expect answers in minutes instead of hours, so waiting for you to get back to the office to send them pertinent information is not ideal.

But before you run to your developers to have them get started on your SharePoint mobile project, it is important to understand SharePoint's native mobile capabilities as well as the alternatives. There are also several other aspects to consider before jumping in.

New Mobile Features in SharePoint 2013

With the release of SharePoint 2013 has come some vast improvements in its mobile capabilities, as well as some cool new mobile features. Among these features are:

  • Optimized mobile browser experience -- a lightweight browsing experience for users to access SharePoint content; it allows three different views -- classic, contemporary and full screen UI
  • Device channels -- allows rendering a single SharePoint publishing site in multiple ways by creating different designs to target specific devices
  • Push notifications -- developers can now create notifications that send updates to a mobile device when specific activities occur on a SharePoint site
  • Location -- supports a new geolocation field type that can be used for mobile app development
  • Office web apps -- the viewer for Microsoft Office documents provides enhanced experiences when interacting with documents and has been optimized for mobile devices

Responsive web design isn't a new concept with SharePoint 2013; however it is popular as ever if you opt to build a mobile SharePoint website instead of an app. Responsive websites adapt the layout by using fluid grids, flexible images and CSS3 media queries. Media queries are useful for applying different CSS styles to different screen resolutions.

Stefan Bauer, Information Architect for Box Consulting, warns however, that using media queries alone are problematic, especially when considering accessibility.

Just because the screen resolution is 800 pixels wide doesn't mean that the user is accessing with a tablet. It can mean that someone visually impaired has reduced their screen size. Or it can mean the user has split a regular display with resolution of 1680 pixels wide so that the browser window covers half the screen -- still not a tablet."

To address this issue, Bauer says:

Device channels combined with media queries are the best way to go. This is because you can create a unique user experience for every one of the three most common device classes -- desktop, tablet and mobile."

Whether you build a responsive SharePoint site, an app or just use SharePoint's native mobile browser functionality depends on several criteria, which we will explore below.

Define the Business Need

As with any SharePoint project (or any software project for that matter), your mobile solution needs to provide business value first and foremost. You need to define what it is that mobile users need to have access to and what they should (and shouldn’t) be able to do. Perhaps they need to quickly find content that they need, or collaborate with colleagues in order to quickly solve problems, or have access to their content while offline.

You also need to define your audience and your use cases. For example, if your main audience is the sales team, then walk through the daily routine or tasks that a sales rep would need to perform while on the road visiting clients. Doing this will help you to see which features are really important, and you won't end up with a bunch of extra features that you don't need, even though they may be really cool.

Also important is deciding which devices you must support. If all your sales reps only use iPads, for example, then this may have some bearing on your decision of whether to build or buy a solution; and if you build, whether you create an app or a mobile SharePoint site. It will be much less expensive to support one platform vs. several in this scenario.

Build vs. Buy

Is there something already out there on the market that will provide most, if not all of, the functionality that you desire? If it's not exact, can it be customized to meet your needs? Oftentimes it is cheaper, quicker and easier to buy a third party solution rather than employ your own development and testing resources for a multi-month project.

There are some great SharePoint mobile solutions out there right now. While not an all-inclusive list, a few are listed below:

  • harmon.ie Mobile -- offers full-featured access to Office 365 and SharePoint from a mobile device; supports iOS, Blackberry, and Android (Beta) devices
  • Colligo Briefcase -- provides secure mobile access to SharePoint; supports iOS devices
  • KWizCom SharePoint Mobility Bundle -- allows creation of custom SharePoint mobile solutions without development; supports iOS, Blackberry, Android, and Windows 8 devices
  • Infragistics SharePlus -- a secure, feature-rich SharePoint app; supports iOS and Android devices
  • Mobile Entrée -- provides browser-based mobile access to SharePoint that is currently available as an on-premises solution and will soon be available through Office365; supports iOS, Blackberry, Android and Windows Phone devices

Again it may depend on which devices you need to support as to whether a third party solution will meet your needs. Some mobile apps, for example, only support iOS at the moment. Also it will depend on your specific use cases and how much customization will be needed to meet your business objectives.

Apps vs. Mobile Sites

If you've decided to build your own mobile SharePoint solution, then the next burning question is whether to build a mobile app for SharePoint, or just create a mobile browser version of your SharePoint site that works in all the major mobile browsers.

There are advantages and disadvantages to either approach. Nimrod Geva, Product Group Manager for KWizCom, shared with me his thoughts on both strategies:

Typically native apps are faster and integrate more easily with the device's file system, camera, etc., and you can work offline. The advantages of a mobile website are that they are much easier to update and deploy, as there is no need to create multiple versions for all the different device platforms, so it is less expensive to maintain than an app."

A third option that seems to be gaining traction as of late are creating hybrid mobile apps. A hybrid app is effectively a web app (written in HTML5, CSS and JavaScript), but it runs inside a native container. It leverages the device's browser engine to render the HTML and process the JavaScript locally. It is installed and used like a native app and can access most device APIs.

Geva notes that Netflix has created a hybrid mobile solution rather than a traditional app. He says that he receives updates from time to time without having to download and install a new version of the app.

While many companies may feel that building mobile websites or exposing SharePoint through the mobile browser are the way to go, the overwhelming response I've heard from mobile users (myself included) is that they strongly prefer using apps over mobile websites in general. This is because apps are usually faster and easier to use than mobile sites. So you may want to at least take into consideration the preference of your user base before making a final decision.

Security Concerns

Regardless of whether you decide to build an app or a mobile site, there are multiple security concerns to be aware of. Even before companies implement a mobile SharePoint solution, users may be attempting to share documents outside of the confines of SharePoint from their mobile devices.

David Lavenda, VP of Product Strategy for harmon.ie, hears about this concern firsthand from customers.

Lots of companies are struggling with the fact that workers are going outside SharePoint to share documents because there isn't a good mobile solution to SharePoint today. The use of these unsanctioned apps like Dropbox and YouSendIt (now Hightail) is causing angst for IT folks who are chartered with maintaining corporate governance. Getting this under control is a big deal because companies have already invested in SharePoint, which means getting the most of existing investments and it’s a huge security risk because documents are being stored all over the place -- outside the confines of the company."

Others I've spoken with say that mobile security almost seems to be an afterthought in many organizations. This is scary when you think about the risk that unmanaged mobile devices can pose, especially if you are opening SharePoint up for mobile access. Your corporate data will be more vulnerable and easily exposed if the right precautions aren't put into place.

Some of the questions that you should be asking include: What happens if a mobile device is lost or stolen? Are you able to secure your data or wipe the device remotely if you need to? What if a malicious app tries to access corporate content? How do you prevent sensitive data from being shared? How do you control who has access to what?

Mobile device management (MDM) software can alleviate security concerns by securing, monitoring, and managing the mobile devices used to access corporate resources. A good MDM tool would ideally be able to support corporate-owned as well as personal mobile devices.

Key Takeaways

To recap, some of the key things to think about before allowing mobile access to your SharePoint environment are:

  1. Define your business needs, use cases, and your audience
  2. Decide which device(s) you must support
  3. Decide whether you can buy an existing SharePoint mobile app or if you'll need to build one
  4. If you must build, decide which solution is right for you - a mobile site, a native app, or a hybrid app
  5. Understand the security risks and take steps to mitigate that risk
  6. Understand the development and maintenance costs involved.

Title image courtesy of Leena Robinson (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: Read more from our August focus on the evolution of SharePoint