Office 365 Groups first appeared in October 2014 to deliver team collaboration workspaces created from an Exchange Online shared mailbox and calendar and a SharePoint Online document library. They have since been enhanced with the addition of a shared OneNote notebook that can be edited by any of the group members.
I like Office 365 Groups because I consider them the first advance in the area of distribution groups since dynamic distribution groups appeared in Exchange 2003. I am unsure whether these modern groups will ever fully replace traditional distribution groups, but the signs are that Microsoft is emphasizing Office 365 groups as a great way for small to medium teams to work together – and as a form of shared identity that can be used to access resources drawn from across Office 365. It will be interesting to see how they develop.
But up to now, the usefulness of Office 365 Groups in the eyes of some has been limited because of their dependency on Outlook Web App (OWA). Outlook remains the most popular client within Office 365 and no version of Outlook sports the necessary user interface to display and work with Office 365 Groups. That is, until the most recent build (3930) of Outlook 2016 Preview appeared. This client supports:
- Threaded conversations from groups are displayed in a special view.
- A group ribbon containing group commands is displayed when viewing group conversations.
- Support for group management actions, like adding a new group (regretfully, this action is not yet controllable)
- Favorite groups are shown in the same list as favorite mailbox folders
- Ability to attach a file to a message from a group document library. I found some sharing glitches with this functionality, but it does work.
- Support for users to "like" contributions to group conversations and notifications of those "likes" (including displaying the number of "likes" alongside each thread)
- A new offline file (the GST, or Group Storage File) to hold offline copies of group conversations (cached copies of group document libraries can already be held offline using the Sync option). The GST is similar to the OST and the same Outlook slider control determines how much information is synchronized to the GST (all data, the last 12 months data, etc.). I found that synchronization (or perhaps refresh of a threaded conversation) doesn't work as smoothly with groups as it does with normal mail when new items arrive.
All of this is good and the integration works reasonably well given that Outlook 2016 is still in preview.
Although some discussion has taken place in the Office 365 Yammer network, Microsoft has not confirmed whether Groups will be supported in a future update for Outlook 2013. Given the difficulties that large (and even small) companies have in deploying new versions of the Office desktop suite and that the Outlook desktop client is used more heavily than OWA, it seems to make sense to update Outlook 2013 to support Groups, but we will have to see what Microsoft says on this topic at Ignite.
However, it is possible to view conversations in a group mailbox with earlier versions of Outlook by treating the mailbox as a shared mailbox and using the Add-MailboxPermission cmdlet to assign FullAccess permission to it in the same way as you would to allow access to any other shared mailbox. If necessary, the Add-RecipientPermission cmdlet can be used to assign the ability for someone to send messages as the group mailbox. This level of integration is basic because it isn't able to access any of the purpose-built user interface to deal with groups, such as the special threaded view or ribbon, but it might be sufficient in some cases.
At least four sessions are scheduled to cover Office 365 Groups at Ignite. If you're interested in this topic, you might want to attend:
Microsoft Office 365 Groups Overview and Roadmap – Tuesday, 9AM
Microsoft Office 365 Groups Deep Dive – Tuesday, 5PM
Evolving Distribution Lists with Office 365 Groups – Wednesday, 5PM
Collaborate on Files and Information within Office 365 Groups – Wednesday 3:15PM
It's obvious that this is an area that is developing fast. There's still no formal news on how Exchange 2016 will support Groups, but I expect that issue to be clarified at Ignite too.
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