I’ve been away for awhile in sunny Mexico and then, upon my return, promptly got sick. Anyway, I’m back in the saddle again, and ready to post this, my last, item on Outlook 2007 Beta 1’s offline SharePoint capabilities. The same caveats apply to this post as the last ones on this subject.
Users can sync document libraries, calendars, contact lists, task lists and discussion boards from SharePoint 2007 sites to Outlook 2007. Views, custom lists or other standard lists cannot be sync’d, however. Sync with a particular library or list is initiated through the browser view of a SharePoint server online by selecting “Open in Outlook” from the “Actions” menu. This causes the list items to be downloaded to Outlook 2007 in sub-folders under a new folder entitled “Microsoft Windows SharePoint Services”. Subsequent syncs use the standard Outlook send/receive settings and controls.
Sync’d files and lists are stored offline on the users hard drive in a special PST file. Probably because of this, relative links to other documents, such as those used in Excel files, do not work if the file is opened “in situ”, rather they must be manually copied out of Outlook into the proper directories on the users hard drive. The folder hierarchy in a document library is lost in Outlook since all files and folders appear at one level once a sync takes place.
Files in document libraries are treated offline in much the same way as email attachments. For example, they are stored under a date heading and the user is asked if they would like to “save” or “open” when double clicked. I was unable to get two-way sync for document libraries and discussion boards to work, since these folders appeared to be “read only” (so I could not save edited content back into them to sync back up to the server). I’m not sure if this is just a beta bug or the intended behavior.
Two-way sync of tasks, contacts and calendars worked well and these lists are fully integrated with the Outlook user interface. Synchronization conflicts, which can arise when different changes are made to the offline and online versions of an item, are flagged and the users version is stored in the “conflicts” folder. Manual resolution of the conflict can then be performed.
We applaud Microsoft for developing a clean and easy way to sync certain types of SharePoint 2007 content with Outlook 2007. The easy-to-initiate interface through the browser makes it a real no-brainer for the user to select which list they want to take offline. Then, using the standard Outlook send/receive mechanics to keep selected lists in sync, they can “set and forget” – online or offline.
For PIM data, such as contact lists, calendars and tasks, this capability will make it really easy for users to keep track of changes without having to open the browser every time they go online.
For document libraries, we get the impression that the designers have targeted individual users that want to take a few read-only documents offline when they travel out of the office. Perhaps there are several files from a SharePoint portal that they refer to on a regular basis and want to have with them at all times – online or offline. The “attachment” paradigm where files are stored under dates (like emails) and the fact that the user is prompted to save to the hard drive when a file is opened means that the doc library organization structure (and associated metadata) is lost. In addition, since offline document library folders appear to be read-only, users are restricted to manually saving files that they edit offline back to the SharePoint site through a browser when they return online, at least for now.
The departure from SharePoint is more significant, though, if you look at the lack of support for folder hierarchy, metadata, list views and custom lists. These advanced features are often used by site designers and administrators to organize project documents and to manage team workflow. This virtually eliminates the use of Outlook to represent the logic of SharePoint collaborative workspaces for project teams working offline.
In the end, this is a well thought through feature set for the user of Sharepoint 2007 who needs a few things from a portal and doesn’t want to go back and forth between the browser and Outlook 2007 interfaces. This appears to be the design spec the Outlook team was working towards. We don’t think it’s a good choice, however, as the sole offline SharePoint interface for mobile workers that need to access and edit content in collaborative workspaces. Fortunately, there are (or will be) other products to choose from with those features.
Your comments and questions are always welcome.