Better Together: Office 365 + Windows Phone

For years, Microsoft has pushed a narrative where its products were wonderful as standalone solutions but "better together" when used in concert with other Microsoft products. While the merits of such an approach can be judged on a case by case basis, there's little doubt that Windows Phone and Office 365 are excellent on their own. But by integrating them as one, these two solutions are indeed better together, and an excellent argument for those who wish to stay within the Microsoft sphere of platforms.

Paul Thurrott

January 28, 2012

9 Min Read
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One of the key advantages of Microsoft's various platforms is the cross-integration you get across the software giant's various applications, servers, services, and other products. Office 365, Microsoft's productivity cloud service, works well with various mobile platforms. And Windows Phone, the software giant's smart phone solution, integrates not just with other Microsoft platforms, but also with the third party services that matter to most people. 

Put the two together, however, and something interesting happens. These two platforms aren't just integrated, they form together a truly superior solution.

It's interesting to examine these two platforms from the perspective of the other. For example, as an Office 365 user, you could use any modern smartphone platform. Thanks to its native Exchange ActiveSync (EAS) capabilities, you can access your Office 365-based email, calendar, and contacts from Android, the iPhone (or other iOS devices), or Windows Phone, your choice.

From the Windows Phone point of view, Office 365 is one of several explicitly supported account types, albeit one that provides a full suite of useful services, including email, calendar, contacts, and tasks. But as a truly integrated Microsoft platform, Office 365 also impacts Windows Phone in other very interesting ways. You get SharePoint Online access to your documents via the Office hub, a truly unique capability. And you can use the new Lync 2010 Mobile client for presence and communications integration with Office 365's Lync Online service.

Yes, Windows Phone and Office 365 are useful on their own, and each can be used with other rival platforms for a very decent experience--say, using Gmail with Windows Phone or Office 365 on an iPhone--but when used together, Windows Phone and Office 365 are indeed a superior combination. Here, the whole is greater than the parts: Windows Phone and Office 365 are different platforms, of course, but by using both together, you gain a truly integrated experience that, in total, is unavailable otherwise.

Let's take a look.

Office 365 integration with Windows Phone begins as do all other account configurations, via Email + Accounts settings (Settings, Email + Accounts). Tap Add An Account and then choose Outlook, which is the curiously named account type for Office 365, Exchange, and any other EAS-type accounts. (Yes, you could use this for both Gmail and Hotmail too, if you wanted.)

From here, all you need to do is provide your Office 365 email address and password and Windows Phone will automatically configure the account properly. (It's worth noting that this behavior is new to Windows Phone 7.5. In the previous version of this mobile OS, you had some painful configuration to do involving looking up the Outlook Web Access [OWA] URL that's not worth discussing here.)

When that's done, Windows Phone will display a very interesting--and unique to Office 365--page in which it explains that the email is set up, as is your SharePoint Online Team Site (in the Office hub), and that you can download the Lync 2010 Mobile client from the Marketplace. This little bit of discovery is a nice touch, because it's unclear how many Office 365 users would even know these features even existed otherwise.

From here, you could move on blissfully, but I thought I'd explain some of the Office 365 features you may want to configure for an optimal experience.

Configuring the Office 365 account

When you dismiss the previous screen (and optionally download the Lync 2010 Mobile client), your account has been created and given default settings. You may want to change some of these. In Email + Accounts, for example, you'll see that your new Office 365 account has been named Outlook. You may want to change this however, as I did, so tap on the Outlook account entry in Email + Accounts and then tap on the Account name field to edit that. (I happened to choose "Office 365".)

There are other settings of interest here. By default, Outlook-type accounts (which is to say, "EAS accounts") are configured to download new content--meaning email, contacts, calendars, and tasks--as it is added or changed, via a push-based mechanism. This provides the best performance, but it can also drain the battery more quickly, so if you're using multiple accounts, especially, considering toning down the new content delivery for the lesser accounts. I do leave this setting alone for Office 365.

You can also configure how much previous email is downloaded to the phone (with default of 7 days) and which of the Office 365 account services--email, contacts, calendars, and tasks--are synced to the phone. At the bottom of this screen (you'll need to scroll down to see it) are more advanced settings that you will not need to bother with--and shouldn't change--for Office 365.

Configuring email

When you have successful configured an Office 365 account on Windows Phone, a live tile for that service's email is placed at the bottom of the Start screen. You may want to move this tile higher up where it's more easily accessible, or you can use the Linked Inbox feature I described in Windows Phone 7.5: Linked Inbox for Email Consolidation to combine email from multiple accounts into a single live tile.

Regardless, before making any other changes, you should first open the Office 365 mail app and tap More ("...") in the App Bar and then Settings. From this screen, you can configure key Mail app features like Conversation View (On by default, and useful since it's an Exchange feature and thus used by Office 365), your email signature (which is configured per account), and so on. The Sync Settings button navigates you to the Email + Accounts settings described in the previous section.

Configuring contacts

Any contacts that are available in Office 365 will automatically be made available in the People hub, unless of course you uncheck "Contacts" on the Office 365 Settings screen in Email + Accounts settings. Beyond that, there are only a few things you can do to configure contacts. In People settings (People hub, More ["..."], Settings) you can determine how contacts are sorted (by first or last name) and displayed (ditto). 

(There's an option called "Only show posts from people visible in my contacts list," which refers to the social network integration in the People hub, and applies only to the Facebook account type, which allows for contacts hiding.)

Configuring calendars

To configure Office 365 calendars, you need to open the Calendar app, tap More ("...") in the App Bar, and then Settings. This screen (which will likely scroll well past the bottom of the physical display) includes a list of every calendar that is configured on the device. This will include one or more Office 365-based calendars, depending on what you've configured through the service. For each calendar, you can determine whether it's enabled or disabled (On, the default, or Off), and which color is used to denote appointments and tasks in that calendar.

Configuring tasks

There is an option at the bottom of the Calendar Settings screen called "Show to-dos on the calendar" that refers only to Hotmail tasks, which are called To-do's. Don't worry about this option, at least with regards to Office 365. As noted above, you can determine whether Office 365-based tasks are made available on the phone via Email + Accounts settings only. They will appear in the Calendar app and trigger notification toasts as expected.

Configuring and using SharePoint Online

After you've configured an Office 365 account on Windows Phone, you should navigate to Settings, Applications, Office and examine two options. The first, User name, will almost certainly be misconfigured to "User", so change that to your actual name so that any changes you make to Office 365-hosted documents are correctly identified. Second, ensure that the option titled "Open SharePoint links in the Office hub" is checked. Otherwise, SharePoint links will open, non-optimally, in Internet Explorer.

Once that's out of the way, you can visit the Office hub, where links to your Office 365-based SharePoint Team Site have been placed. To access this document share, open the Office hub and navigate to the Locations screen. Here, you'll see links for Team Site, Phone, and SkyDrive. The first, of course, is from Office 365.

The first time you tap Team Site, you'll be asked to sign into Office 365 and Windows Phone can optionally save this password so you don't need to do so again.

Once that's done, you can access your Team Site using a nice, Metro-style UI. Unless you've already configured SharePoint Online in Office 365 differently, you'll see Documents, Posts, and Site Assets folders, and you can navigate around the UI, open and create documents, search, and perform other operations. 

One nice option that you can apply on a per-document basis is "Always Keep Offline," which will ensure that that document is always available on the phone, even when you're disconnected. (To do so, tap and hold on a document and choose "Always Keep Offline" from the pop-up menu that appears.)

Configuring and using Lync Online

As alluded to previously, Lync is not (yet?) an integrated part of Windows Phone, so you'll need to download the Lync 2010 Mobile app from the Windows Phone Marketplace before you can access Office 365's Lync Online services on the phone. If you didn't download this app in the post-account configuration page noted above, you can do so manually at any time.

Lync 2010 Mobile is a straightforward app, and if you've ever used Lync on your PC, or any instant messaging solution, it will seem familiar. The app provides a few settings (in App Bar, More ["..."], Settings), for your mobile number, push notifications, the display of photos, and diagnostic logging. And in use, it provides a pretty simple UI, with My Info (presence, availability), Contacts (individuals and groups), and Conversations views.

I'm not able to use Lync as often as I'd like since my Office 365 account has only a single user, which doesn't lend itself very well to intra-user communications. But you'll need to use Lync 2010 on your Windows-based PC to get the most from this service, since that client provides additional capabilities over the mobile client, which is limited to presence, text-based IM, and audio conferencing.

Final thoughts

For years, Microsoft has pushed a narrative where its products were wonderful as standalone solutions but "better together" when used in concert with other Microsoft products. While the merits of such an approach can be judged on a case by case basis, there's little doubt that Windows Phone and Office 365 are excellent on their own. But by integrating them as one, these two solutions are indeed better together, and an excellent argument for those who wish to stay within the Microsoft sphere of platforms. 

About the Author(s)

Paul Thurrott

Paul Thurrott is senior technical analyst for Windows IT Pro. He writes the SuperSite for Windows, a weekly editorial for Windows IT Pro UPDATE, and a daily Windows news and information newsletter called WinInfo Daily UPDATE.

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