I have been trying to make sense of the integration between the Office Online applications and Dropbox announced on April 9. I suspect I am not the only one in this situation, at least not in the ranks of those who focus on enterprise computing rather than personal usage. Let’s see if we can figure out what’s happening.
It seems like Microsoft’s decision to collaborate with Dropbox is a good thing for users, who will be able to access their personal Dropbox accounts from Office applications running on Windows, iOS, and Android. On the other hand, it’s easy to see how this could cause some heartburn for enterprise administrators. It's not that the enterprise folk want to remove pleasure from the lives of their users; it's just that they have a natural deep-seated concern about how corporate data is moved around and managed. Administrators working for large enterprises think about how to deploy functionality such as Information Rights Protection (IRM) and Data Loss Prevention (DLP) to protect the assets of the company, both of which can constraint the ability of users to share information with external partners.
Opening up to Dropbox seems a little inconsistent when you compare it to how Microsoft is putting great effort into the compliance side of Office 365. DLP for OneDrive for Business and SharePoint Online have recently arrived for some First Release tenants to go alongside similar DLP facilities that exist to protect the use of sensitive data in Exchange. And a dedicated Compliance Center is being introduced to act as a fulcrum of features that control the retention, removal, and use of data within Office 365.
But Offline Online is not the same as Office 365, even if Office 365 users can use the Office Online apps. Indeed, it’s likely that far more work is still done with the desktop versions of Office than with their online counterparts, which aren’t able to link to Dropbox. Introducing new code into desktop products takes a lot more work than it does for browser-based apps, which is one of the reasons why Outlook 2013 (or the 2016 preview) lag behind Outlook Web App when it comes to exploiting current Office 365 functionality.
Still, it’s also true that Office 365 accommodates way more than just the enterprise sector. In fact, the majority of tenants are represented by small companies, who probably don't have a lot of IT people on staff and don't care so much about functionality like DLP. This fact means that decisions taken within the service sometimes reflect the needs of the many rather than the few, often to reduce the "friction" required to manage a tenant. An example of this thinking in action was the recent change to stop the Exchange Managed Folder Assistant cleaning out the Deleted Items folder of user mailboxes.
And because Dropbox is so widely used to share information between individuals and companies, it makes perfect sense for Microsoft to incorporate Dropbox into its Office Online apps. After all, this work simply reflects the reality of the way many people work today. Microsoft might like it if OneDrive (or even OneDrive for Business) was the standard, but it’s not and Microsoft has to deal with that fact.
I know why enterprise administrators hate the idea that users can circumvent IRM, DLP, and other restrictions to share information externally by firing up Word Online or Excel Online and saving confidential company information to their Dropbox account. I’m unaware of any way to prevent this happening or to know how many people might be using Dropbox in this fashion. So it is an issue that only user training and HR guidelines can address for now.
But let’s face it. Users have figured out ways to get around corporate IT restrictions since the floppy disk was invented and will continue to do so because it’s human nature to find out easier ways to accomplish tasks. On the upside, having the ability to access Dropbox is a two-way street and information held in Dropbox can now be retrieved and saved in OneDrive for Business, SharePoint, or whatever company repository is deemed appropriate. It seems that every cloud has a silver lining…
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