Mobilizing the Enterprise

Thoughts on SharePoint, Smartphones, and the future of enterprise productivity

Office365 and iPad

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As mentioned in a previous post, we’re big fans of Microsoft’s hosted services.  But to really push the edge of mobile device productivity experiences, I wanted to evaluate Office365 on my iPad.  In general, I found Office365 has significant usability problem on touch tablets. Office365 starts with a user experience that is optimized for the fine precision of a mouse pointer and objects are too closely positioned for a finger sized touch experience.  There are some compatibility problems on iPad’s safari browser that together, make for a substandard iPad/Office365 experience.

Office365 is implemented using HTML/HTML5 which is commonly viewed as the gold standard for broad cross platform compatibility. However,  in this case, running is not the same as loving.  Native iPad experiences outshine web experiences for productivity scenarios. Office365 is in beta and we’re hoping the iPad experience will improve.

Productivity Scenarios

Generally, we’ve found three interesting tablet productivity scenarios for the enterprise:

1) Document consumption -  Accessing documents on Office365′s SharePoint server for personal viewing and sharing with co-workers.

2) Focused collaboration experiences - Exploiting opportunities for bite sized productivity events such as reviewing documents, annotating documents, and sharing or approving those results.  Email triage, replying to and authoring short email would also fall into this category.

3) Document creation and aggregation experiences - This is a complete productivity experience where documents are created, aggregated, and referenced across multiple  SharePoint stores, email threads, and people/aliases.

People should reasonably expect to do #1 and #2 on an iPad.  In the case of #3,  likely the iPad needs to be docked with a large screen, keyboard, and touch pad to deliver a rich PC-like experience. #3 doesn’t feel mainstream yet.

Web Office365 UX on iPad

With scenarios #1 and #2 in mind, I started using Office365 on my iPad by navigating to  Luckily Office365 is mostly HTML based and use of plugins like Sliverlight are optional.  I enter Office365 by clicking on the top right corner to sign in.  Unfortunately the sign in link is surrounded by a number of hot spots including the browser bookmarks and links to Bing and other Microsoft sites. The yellow highlight gives you an idea of the size of a finger and its error zone with respect to the active hit areas on the screen.  This problem permeates Office365.

Sign In too close to bookmarks, search, and "All Microsoft Sites" links

The ribbon, appearing everywhere in Office365, offers a dense forest of icons that provide easy access to rich functionality on a laptop but is extremely frustrating to use with a finger on a tablet.  Frequent zooming in/out  to hit buttons on the ribbon is needed. Buttons to move to the next page in a Word document are adjacent to the “close document” button which makes advancing pages a multiple step process - zoom in, next page, zoom out.  Menus are hard to initially drop due to small size and once dropped, are too narrow to select items accurately. Rich help is provided by hovering the mouse over icons but this has no equivalent on a touch based system.  In some instances, controls surfacing new functionality emerge on laptops when you hover with a mouse but are frustratingly inaccessible on tablets.

"Next page" too close to "close document"

Word's ribbon is a tightly packed icon forest not usable with touch

Outlook's ribbon has many hit zones near the frequently used To: field

Menus are narrow with many adjacent hit zones accidentally hit by finger

SharePoint 2010's ribbon makes site navigation and document retrieval cumbersome

Team Site's densely packed UX in the top left with white space everywhere else

Beyond Touch UX

Other annoying user experience problems include:
1) Extensive use of tabs - Many clicks (login, navigating to outlook, navigating to sharepoint, opening a document) open a new tab in the browser. Tabs are slower to access and interrupt the work flow on tablets.  Once you exceed 9 tabs, iPad Safari reuses old ones which can make getting back to the launch point difficult or even impossible.

2) No interop with native apps or local storage  - iPad doesn’t have a local file system storage for browser apps. Documents cannot be downloaded within the Safari browser for use with native applications or to save for later offline use. Uploading from Dropbox into SharePoint also cannot be accomplished from the browser UX.  This would be a major limitation to users accustomed to iPad applications.

3) Silverlight - There are multiple prompts for Silverlight which get in the way of a clean tablet experience.

Download Silverlight (if you can)...

4) The entry level Office365 versions for Small Businesses don’t use encryption when transmitting documents to the SharePoint server.  This is documented in the “Plan for SSL” section of the linked document.  This means users with wireless iPads could have their file data intercepted when used at a coffee shop.  Microsoft seems to suggest this will be fixed in a future release but this is a significant limitation of the current product.  When Foursquare check-ins are encrypted for consumers, it is surprising Microsoft chose to not encrypt business documents transmitted to Office365′s Small Business SharePoint servers.

On the positive side, it is nice to have Microsoft blessed viewers for my Office document content.  Unlike the built in Apple viewers, annotations are visible, formatting is accurate, and embedded graphics show up properly.

Unfortunately, I was not able to annotate or edit any documents so those bite sized productivity moments are out of reach.  I could not position the text insertion cursor on a document’s body nor could I get the iPad’s soft keyboard to pop up to edit the document body.  Ribbon buttons which inserted tables and other symbols worked fine which seems to suggest there are some browser compatibility problems under the covers as opposed to editing being disabled.  I minimize this issue simply because Office365 is in beta and browser compatibility problems are generally fixable.


HTML/HTML5 is often looked to for broad cross platform compatibility.  But in this case, running is not the same as loving. In general, performing simple document consumption and basic document annotation and review scenarios with Office365 on a tablet seem very unpolished.  For Microsoft, there is a broader concern that when they come out with a Windows (touch) tablet, their existing Office applications and cloud services won’t have a compelling touch centric user experience.

If you would like a rich iPhone or iPad experience connecting to SharePoint in your office or in the cloud (Office365 or BPOS), you should try our latest application, Coaxion.  See our tour here. Coaxion is “Dropbox for the enterprise” and allows you to securely access and share corporate documents with private groups.

Written by daviddsouza

May 7, 2011 at 12:04 am

Posted in iPad, Microsoft

One Response

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  1. I completely agree and with windows 8 moving towards a touch interface and mobility how come Microsoft are not pushing a mobile office suite that works with fingers and not mouse.

    Consumerisation of IT and the ability to ‘graze’ information using appropriate devices is not a future, it’s here and now.

    Microsoft would do well to take a good look at these issues and move more quickly to market lest they lose it, late 2012 could be too late.

    Kean Millward

    September 2, 2011 at 7:49 am

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