SharePoint Mobile: Mobile App Types

Learn what mobile features improve SharePoint 2013--plus, pros and cons of mobile app types.

Ron Charity

January 30, 2014

7 Min Read
SharePoint Mobile: Mobile App Types

In part 1 of my SharePoint Mobile article, I discussed how to get started on the preliminary aspects of making your SharePoint implementation mobile, starting with governance. Now let’s look at some of the investments Microsoft has made in the mobility aspect of SharePoint 2013 as well as examine the types of mobile apps that are out there.

Notable Mobile Features in SharePoint 2013

Though you might still be running SharePoint 2007 or have standardized on SharePoint 2010 for the time being, SharePoint 2013 offers some compelling reasons to upgrade--especially when you link your organization’s mobile, social, search, and virtualization plans together. Key features include

  • Ability to push out notifications – You can enable the push notification service on a SharePoint site to send device updates such as a tile notification to a Windows Phone device.

  • Business intelligence content – You can now display some business intelligence (BI) content such as PerformancePoint Web Parts, Excel Services reports, and SQL Server Reporting Services reports.

  • HTML 5.0 interface - The HTML 5.0 interface for smartphone mobile devices is a lightweight, contemporary-view browsing experience for users to navigate and access document libraries, lists, wikis, and Web Parts.

  • Location - The new geolocation field type can be used to make lists location-aware.

  • Office Web Applications – As a new, standalone server, Office Web Apps let users view Microsoft Office Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents in mobile browsers with additional functionality.

  • Rendering in different device channels – Lets you render a single published SharePoint site in multiple designs to meet the requirements of different devices.

For more about the above mobile features, see the Microsoft website.  Now let’s talk a moment specifically about Office Web Applications, and about Apple devices.

Office Web Applications

I’ve done extensive work with mobility over the past two years and have seen improvements in such areas as the experience of working on an Apple iPad--the integration and ease of use being a significant improvement, along with multi-platform support (which didn’t exist a few years ago).

Have you ever run a third-party “Office like” application on an iPad? If you have, then you’ll know how difficult it is to work “mobile.”

Specifically, third-party applications lack the consistent user experience and richness that Office users have become accustomed to. For an earlier product review, I downloaded Apple’s versions of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint and worked with them for a month and concluded the following:

  • The user experience is completely different.

  • I found myself reaching for features that weren’t present and had to try workarounds.

  • These applications are great for simple work, but ideally, they are best for viewing.

  • Conversions work okay but generally create more work if there is complex formatting.

The solution? Office Web Applications. (See the Microsoft website on Office Web Applications.) They make a lot of sense because of the consistent user experience they offer.

Types of Mobile Applications

Before going further, let’s establish a common understanding of mobile applications so we have some common ground to discuss.

It’s important to understand the pros (and cons) of each because it will help you choose the best route toward mobilizing SharePoint. According to Gartner there are three types of mobile applications.

Native applications. Native apps utilize the manufacturer’s development tools, and the application (all the code) resides on the mobile device.

  • Pros – native interface look and feel (swipe, two-finger gesture) is retained, user experience is consistent (ease of use helps with adoption), application runs as fast as the mobile device can support, not reliant on network bandwidth and Web server.

  • Cons – code is specific to the device and can’t be used across different devices (IOS and Android), multiple code packages for each device, skills for developing code required, code maintenance, code distribution from App Store and network bandwidth required to download.

HTML 5.0. Native applications utilize the HTML 5.0 standard and can therefore take advantage of geo-location, camera, video, and audio features.

  • Pros – Close to native interface look and feel, runs on multiple devices, user experience is consistent across devices, application runs as fast as the mobile device can support, can leverage SharePoint development skills, can distribute through SharePoint store (for use by Sites after a site admin provisions it) and don’t require multiple development environments to support devices.

  • Cons – Native features not all supported, HTML 5.0 skills for developing code are required, applications run as fast as the web servers and network will support (expect inconsistent experience from continent to continent), code maintenance (though reduced compared to native), code distribution from SharePoint App Store (Site admins must provision app).

Hybrid applications. Hybrid apps use a combination of native and Web technologies. For example, the UI is based on the native technology (e.g., iOS) and the back end is based on Web Services that are either SharePoint or third-party based (e.g., SAP).

  • Pros – able to use the best of both native and HTML, can reuse Web Services across multiple devices and retain native UI look and feel.

  • Cons – two code packages to develop and maintain, code distribution complexity of two code sets and skills sets for devices, multiple UIs required depending on number of devices you support, and longer release cycles due to code complexity.

Aside from Gartner’s definition of mobile applications, there are a few more options. Take a look at the following:

Off the shelf. Several venders offer SharePoint clients that run on multiple platforms; products I've worked with include Infragistics SharePlus,, Colligo Briefcase Pro, and Aircreek Filamente.  For more information on these products, see my comparative review of SharePoint solutions for the iPad.

  • Pros – No development required—only infrastructure configuration such as firewall configuration, utilizes device’s native look and feel, able to launch Office Web Apps to create and edit documents while connected, distributed through vender app stores so you get mobilized quickly.

  • Cons – You’re locked into vendor’s feature development cycle, in-house- developed Web Parts most likely won't render unless vender supports it and therefore might not meet full functionality requirements.

Mobile Enterprise Application Platforms--MEAP.  A suite of tools and infrastructure (middleware) that enables you to build apps via drag-and-drop configuration (through their development studios) that can be run on multiple platforms (e.g., iOS, Android, BlackBerry).

Additionally, MEAPs provide extensions for integrating business applications such as SAP and databases such as SQL Server and Oracle. Examples of MEAPs include Kony, Antenna, and Verivo, to name a few. Gartner has an excellent paper that summarizes the top MEAPs: "Magic Quadrant for Mobile Application Development Platforms - 26 April 2012 – Document ID: G00230529."

  • Pros – Architectural flexibility (drop in and go), configure applications once and use many (across platforms), reduced QA time because there’s no code (the 80/20 rule applies here because there could be a need for code/script). Also, some venders offer hosted solutions, which result in little or no CAPEX.

  • Cons – Cost of software, some loss of native functionality, requires trained and skilled staff, single point of failure if not architected and maintained properly, and you’re reliant on the vendor’s feature roadmap.

Information Architecture Considerations

In the case where you’re opening your farm to the public (perhaps a new service offering), there’s a chance your information architecture will be affected. Specifically, if there are sites you want to expose to the public using mobile technologies, and the sites are mixed with sites containing confidential data, you could end up with a security problem. In this case you might require the following:

  • A separate site collection dedicated to public sites and data

  • A farm dedicated to public data

  • Office 365 and/or hybrid environment

The choice comes down to assessing the risk of exposing the data to the public. But if you’re simply enabling mobile access for staff, then any information architecture changes are simply for usability.

Next up, in part 3, let's look at technical architecture considerations, as well as further steps.


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