SharePoint Mobility Forecast
Making SharePoint mobile -- something Microsoft’s customers have been after since at least the 2007 version of the platform, and something Microsoft and its partners have delivered on with mixed results in the intervening years.

While the release of SharePoint 2013 and even more recent developments have reflected major strides in this area, the true holy grail of an accessible SharePoint environment -- document sharing and collaboration -- remains unrealized.

It’s a matter of more than responsive design and browsers versus native mobile apps, because it touches nearly every major organization in America and yes, the world.

Why? Because most every one of those organizations uses SharePoint, that’s why. Whether it’s a favorite son or a red-headed stepchild, the conversation about SharePoint and mobility is one that has to be addressed in nearly every CIO’s roadmap before too long.

The question as to when, how and even if Microsoft ever intends to address this popular requirement in a way that will satisfy most enterprise users is a question that remains on the table.

What is Microsoft’s strategy for making SharePoint mobile? What drives that strategy? How can enterprise customers take advantage of, augment or get around that strategy as needed to make SharePoint available on-the-go?

To answer these questions, we need to take a deeper look at how the product has evolved, how demand and the marketplace have evolved, and the forces behind Microsoft’s own roadmap. Forces that might have less to do with SharePoint than one might imagine.

The Product

We know from Forrester that the most common uses of SharePoint  by far remain document collaboration (i.e., team- and project-based document management) and intranet scenarios. Since 2003 and 2007, respectively, these have been the platform’s historic strengths. Emerging use cases like enterprise search, business intelligence and most recently, social collaboration are gaining ground but most users still associate SharePoint primarily with these two classic workloads. Not unlike associating Journey with Steve Perry despite a succession of mediocre replacements -- this makes good sense.

The Intranet workload is actually something a modern SharePoint deployment can do quite well, with the keywords being responsive design. A “responsive” design is one that responds to the specific browser or form factor being used to access the content. In responsive design, the same content and navigation are served up to a user regardless of device; instead of valuable content or navigation options being truncated, they are simply resized and/or rearranged to fit the flow of the particular device’s screen (often optimized for vertical scrolling on phones and tablets) and interface style (touch, swipe, mouse, keypad). 

Most intranets are primarily web content, with a sprinkling of forms and unique applications. As such, the same customizations to the UI that make public Internet sites built on SharePoint so responsive can be leveraged for a corporate intranet. These might include customizations to the out-of-the-box framework for device channels, content by search, and other useful tools that already exist as building-block web parts within the 2013 platform.

Utilizing the platform’s publishing framework for web content is a win, then. But what of document collaboration? What about emerging workloads like social business? The answers are a mixed bag, and that’s due to factors beyond what makes sense in the tool itself.

The Marketplace

At times in its lifespan, SharePoint has been the victim of poor timing -- and yet despite this, has thrived and even achieved a certain degree of ubiquity in its core workloads. SharePoint 2010 hit the market just as the iPad began to explode. I was working for Microsoft at the time, and I remember discussions among Softies about what users could possibly see in a device that couldn't create content. The answer, as it turned out, was that a device that remarkably simplified content consumption didn't need to do content creation.

Even so, the ribbon interface of SharePoint 2010 and its clumsy translation to an iPad didn't hurt SharePoint adoption any more than it hurt iPad adoption. Both products exploded in the enterprise in roughly the same time frame. SharePoint 2010 brought interactivity into an intranet world that had previously been the realm of static HTML content -- the “Web 2.0” (remember that term?) of the enterprise. The iPad led the way in forcing the BYOD conversation.

The popularity of both products led for continued calls to make SharePoint tablet-friendly. Commentators wondered aloud when Microsoft would “monetize the iPad” because, after all, failing to put Office on iPads was leaving untold billions on the table. Microsoft even seemed to recognize this, albeit in baby steps, including iPad screenshots in official sales and roadmap presentations; it may have been the first time ever that Microsoft accorded this honor to a product made by an erstwhile competitor. This has gone largely unnoticed by mainstream commentators but in reality it’s no small matter.

The recent release of SharePoint 2013 mobile apps native to iOS -- yes, right there in the Apple Store -- for both the SharePoint social feed and SkyDrive isn’t revolutionary. It’s the continuation of a trend begun in those screenshots (and in places like the OneNote app and Office for Mac).

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the days of “Mac vs. PC” may as well be the distant past. There’s a new elephant in the room, and his name is R2-D2.

The Roadmap: It’s About Office

The single biggest question looming on the mobility horizon for SharePoint isn’t about document collaboration (more on that in a bit) or monetizing the iPad. Instead, it’s about Android.

The Google-produced mobile operating system is now the leader in mobile market share and looks to be entrenched in the pole position for at least the next two years, according to analysts. While Microsoft has begun providing mobile apps for its own Windows Phone and the more popular iOS in near synchronicity, the absence of any such apps for America’s most popular phone OS (though Droid is notably well behind iPad in the tablet market) is the one thing nobody talks about.

Case in point: When Jared Spataro took the stage at last year’s SharePoint Conference to discuss the roadmap and mobile’s place in it, the complete omission of Android in the conversation was searing. This begs the question of why Microsoft is going nowhere near Android, and the more tactical but just-as-pertinent question of how SharePoint can ever claim to truly be BYOD-ready if it can’t provide native apps for more than 50% of America’s smartphones.

The answer isn’t about monetizing the Android (Microsoft already makes good money on every Android phone sold based on the various patents it owns that constitute the system) or even about mobile apps. It’s about document collaboration -- because really, it’s about Office.

That’s right, good old Office. You know, Word, PowerPoint, Excel and Clippy (Okay, maybe not Clippy). The programs everyone wants to see on an iPad, on their phone, on whatever device they bring to work. Together with Windows, Office is one of Microsoft’s two biggest cash cows, and while there might be money to be made in the short term by licensing Office on a platform like Android, that app would necessarily be of limited functionality. Erosion of the brand becomes a major concern. The weight behind Windows Phone, the Surface and PC innovation becomes substantially less.

This is why true document collaboration in SharePoint isn't there for any device yet, even the ones Microsoft itself produces and sells -- because the services behind document collaboration are mostly Office services, not SharePoint ones and moving that feature-rich thick client into a little mobile app has massive negative implications in the long run.

A better play, Microsoft reasons, is to move those services to the cloud and make some subset of them available through apps -- on its first-choice (homemade) and second-choice (Apple) form factors -- but not with the OS provided by the company Redmond views as its primary threat.

The bottom line: If you really want to go mobile in SharePoint for something more than web publishing of intranet pages, go to the cloud. Go Office 365. The writing’s already on the wall; it’s in the form of the SkyDrive app released in late June for Windows Phone and iOS. You can view documents (though not edit them yet, though one suspects that must be coming) from any device connected to your SkyDrive Pro account, and it’s a safe bet that more is coming. Not for on-premises, the smart money says, because Microsoft doesn’t provide those services the way it can from its own cloud servers, and not for Android, because that would commoditize Office.

Not yet, anyway. Who could have foretold a SkyDrive app for iOS back when those silly “Mac vs. PC” commercials were running, after all? Heck, we could barely foretell “apps” at all back then. But as Yoda once told Luke Skywalker, "Always in motion is the future." It’s impossible to know what’s too far ahead. When it comes to mobility and SharePoint, though, the next couple years look mostly Cloudy.

Title image courtesy of Zinchuk_Oksana (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: Read more by Rich in (R)Evolution: The Past, Present and Future of the Social Enterprise