Interesting connectors make cloud data sources available to Office 365 Groups

Interesting connectors make cloud data sources available to Office 365 Groups

Something more interesting than contained in the headlight often lurks behind a major announcement. On November 18, the news was all about the Microsoft Graph and the way that a unified API allowed developers to exploit Office 365 and Azure Active Directory data sources. As it turns out, the method Microsoft has provided a way for developers to connect cloud data sources with Office 365 Groups is possibly even more interesting. 

The basic idea behind Office 365 Groups is pretty simple: they provide the basis for group collaboration that takes advantage of different components drawn from across Office 365. SharePoint provides the document library, OneNote the shared notebook, and Exchange the group mailbox to host conversations and the shared calendar. Being able to automatically channel information from varying sources into targeted groups through connectors makes it easier for group members to access data drawn from those sources.

A connector is a method to link a group to a cloud service such as Twitter, RSS feeds, Trello, Bing News and so on. Periodically, the connector polls the connected service to extract new information and uses it to create new conversation items (called "cards") in the group mailbox, thus making the information available to all of the group members. For instance, if your company has a corporate Twitter account, any tweet sent from that account can be picked up and brought into an Office 365 Group for all to see.

Update March 22: Microsoft has updated the available sources for Connector feeds. The full set now spans 52 sources: Aha, Airbrake, AppSignal, Asana, BeanStalk, Bing News, BitBucket, BMC TrueSight Pulse, Bugsnag, BuildKite, Chatra, CircleCI, Cloud 66, Codeship, Crashlytics, Datadog, Dynamics CRM Online, Enchant, GhostInspector, GitHub, GoSquared, Groove, HelpScout, Heroku, HoneyBadger, JIRA, Librato, Logentries, Magnum CI, MailChimp, OpsGenie, PagerDuty, Papertrail, Pingdom, Pivotal Tracker, Raygun, RSS, Runscope, Salesforce, Sentry, Stack Overflow, StatusPage.io, Subversion, TestFairy, Travis CI, Trello, Twitter, UserLike, UserVoice, WunderList, Yo, Zendesk

If users subscribe to the group to receive updates via email, they'll receive messages containing the contributions gathered through the connectors. Some care is required here as a large volume of messages can be generated from a busy feed that might swamp group members. For this reason, it's probably best to select groups that don't auto-subscribe users for updates and use them to host connectors. Users can subscribe to the group afterwards if they decide that they really want to receive updates via email.

Enough of an introduction, let’s see how this works in practice. The first thing is that because this feature is in preview, you can only work with connectors through Outlook Web App, specifically by adding a suffix to the URL for a group to let Exchange know that you want to manipulate connectors linked to that group.

To begin, access a group (for reasons we will get to later on, you should use a test group) with OWA and you’ll see a URL that looks something like this:

https://outlook.office.com/owa/#path=/group/[email protected]/mail

To access the connectors, add &EnableConnectorDevPreview=true to the URL (warning – this is case sensitive) so you end up with something like this:

https://outlook.office.com/owa/#path=/group/[email protected]/mail&EnableConnectorDevPreview=true

If everything works, you should be able to click on the ellipsis menu […] for the group and see Connectors in the list of features available for the group.

Update March 21: It looks as if Connectors are now available in the basic Groups menu, meaning that you don't have to do the Dev Preview URL shuffle. The documentation has turned up too!

Click on the link and after a short pause you’ll see the set of connectors that Microsoft has made available for the preview (Figure 1). In most cases, before you can grab data from a source, you’ll need to have an account that can grab data from that source, so it's logical that you need to be able to authenticate to the chosen source. Twitter is a good choice for testing as most IT people have Twitter accounts. It's also an interesting way to capture copies of tweets sent from a corporate Twitter account for compliance and record-keeping purposes. That is, once Office 365 Groups support the range of compliance features available in Office 365.

If you prefer not to use Twitter, RSS is another good testing option because you can input an URI for a blog's RSS feed (like http://blogs.technet.com/b/exchange/rss.aspx for the Exchange EHLO blog or http://feeds.feedburner.com/Office365RoadmapWatcher for a feed from a site that monitors changes to the Office 365 Roadmap) to import posts through the connector.

Figure 1: Viewing the set of available connectors for an Office 365 Group

Click Twitter to configure the link and sign in to your Twitter account (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Authentication for a Twitter account

Next, you have to let the connector know what data you want to access through the connector. In Figure 3, you can see that I am using my own Twitter account (@12Knocksinna) and that I want to see tweets sent by four well-known Microsoft MVPs. I’m also interested in seeing any tweet that includes the #iammec hashtag.

Figure 3: Determining the data to be extracted from Twitter

Click Save and the connector is configured. A note is posted to the group to let members know that a new connector has been configured, which helps them understand when new conversations appear labeled as coming from "Twitter" or another source.

After a while, items will start to turn up in the group mailbox and can be viewed using Outlook Web App or Outlook 2016. You can reply to a tweet, but only with Outlook Web App or the Groups mobile app as Outlook 2016 stubbornly refuses to send replies to these conversations. The reply forms part of the conversation inside the Office 365 Group and is not sent back out to Twitter as a reply to the original tweet. Figure 4 shows what an imported tweet looks like in an Office 365 Group when viewed with Outlook Web App:

Figure 4: Viewing a tweet in an Office 365 Group through OWA

Figure 5 shows the same tweet as viewed through Outlook 2016 where the same kind of formatting issues exist with embedded links in the text. The free Techhit Twinbox Twitter add-in for Outlook does a much better job of handling graphics and links and I expect that these problems can be sorted out by tuning the connector to ensure that the items created in the group mailbox respect embedded links.

[Update 14 December; - Tweets now show up properly in OWA and Outlook]

Figure 5: Viewing a tweet through Outlook 2016

The kind of formatting issues experienced when viewing Twitter items through Outlook Web App or Outlook don't exist for items created with other connectors, possibly because the items generated through these feeds are simpler. For example, Figure 6 shows a card created from data received through the Trello connector.

Figure 6: A card created through the Trello connector

Figure 7 illustrates an example created using the RSS connector. Clicking the Read More link brings the user to the source of the feed (in this case, a blog post). By now you'll have noticed that the cards created in Office 365 by all connectors share the same kind of layout. Each has a graphic to indicate its source, a title, some text, and a potential action (like clicking a hyperlink to go to the underlying application). This information is straightforward for developers to construct the payload required by a connector and the simplicity of the interface makes Office 365 Groups an attractive target for information sharing.

Figure 7: A card created through the RSS connector

You can also use the Outlook Groups mobile app (for iOS, Android, and Windows Phone) to view and respond to conversations created through connectors. I tested the app on my Lumia 1020 running Windows Phone 8.1 and it took some time for the items to appear. I don’t know if this was because of the particular type of items or whether the app was just a bit tired, but in any case, they eventually showed up. The hyperlinks in items created by the Trello or RSS connectors (see Figure 8) don't work in the mobile app.

Figure 8: A card created by the Twitter connector viewed through the mobile Groups app

Remember that we’re discussing a developer preview so some functionality can be expected to not work or not be available. For instance, in the preview, any group member can create a connector. This doesn’t seem like the kind of thing you’d want to have happen in practice, so I hope that Microsoft provides some element of administrative control over whom can connect data feeds to groups.

[Update December 6: Since I published this article, Microsoft removed the irritating inability to delete a connector feed once it was created and attached to a group.]

Another irritating thing is that you cannot delete the conversations created in the group mailbox with Outlook 2016, even if you’re an administrator of the group. On the other hand, deletion is possible with Outlook Web App. Outlook 2016 also barfed on a number of items that connectors created in groups, probably because some MAPI property was set incorrectly or missing. My suspicions about badly-formed items were enhanced when Outlook 2016 (version 16.0.6001.1038) abruptly terminated several times when browsing items imported through connectors.  All stuff to be fixed in due course as the preview heads towards general availability.

Perhaps the most interesting of the connectors is the "Incoming Webhook", which allows any source that is capable of sending JSON-formatted payload containing information from an application to feed into Office 365 Groups. The method used is described in the Outlook Dev Center and shows how an application can generate "connector card messages" described in the JSON payload to appear in a group. Think of the examples we've discussed so far. A tweet appears in a card as does an item from an RSS feed or a Trello update. All are provided through connectors in a formatted data stream that ends up with items being created as cards within group conversations. 

The webhook connector enables companies to think about sourcing information from their own applications. For example, each time a representative books a sale, the highlights such as customer name, purchase data, and amount could be transmitted as a card through a connector to appear in a group where the information can be viewed by senior managers or others interested in sales updates. Endless possibilities exist for companies to couple their applications with Office 365 Groups in a very approachable and easy-to-use manner.

Overall, I really like what Microsoft is attempting to do here. Many different sources of interesting and valuable sources exist on the Internet that can inform and delight users and it makes eminent sense to collect information on behalf of users in a place that they can easily access and debate whatever needs to be said.

These connectors will mature to become more functional and robust and by this time next year I imagine that quite a collection will be available to query and interact with many different cloud data sources, all from the privacy of your own Outlook. That’s quite something to anticipate.

Follow Tony @12Knocksinna

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