Microsoft muddles cloud storage in Office 365 for iOS

Microsoft's confusing mix of file-access methods will confound users and make document management iffy

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When Microsoft last week updated its Office 365 suite for iOS to support Apple's iCloud Drive and Box's cloud services, as well as other cloud services that work with iOS 8.1's in-app cloud storage APIs, users cheered and IT admins took a deep breath.

But the expanded support for cloud services in Office for iOS isn't as expanded as it may sound. There's a heavy bias in how the Office apps interact with the various cloud services that steers people to working in Microsoft's OneDrive, OneDrive for Business, and SharePoint, or in Dropbox.

Office 365 for iOS is a very capable suite, and Microsoft is clearly intent on making a solid Office offering available for all major platforms -- Windows, OS X, iOS, and Android -- to maintain its centrality in user computing. Broadening its cloud storage support is a big deal. (Microsoft says iOS Office's multicloud support will be extended to other platforms over time.)

IT organizations have long feared mobile devices as a conduit for potential leaks, and they likewise fear cloud storage services. The combination of cloud file access on mobile apps is, for many, an apocalypse. For users, it allows extreme flexibility in being able to access the content they are working on from pretty much any device they have, eliminating the hassles of remembering to copy files around, then reconcile all the versions later.

Office 365's broadened cloud support may appear to be one of those "IT loses, users win" moments. In some cases, it is, but in others it is not. Office 365's cloud file management is not that straightforward or consistent, and the new services aren't as accessible as you would hope.

If you are concerned about data security and document workflow, it's important to understand how Office 365 manages cloud storage access.

Office 365 is a tiered application, so its capabilities are based on the type of Office 365 account you have. But the cloud security model in Office 365 works the same whether you use no account, a personal account, or a corporate account.

The free and paid tiers available for individual users are open to all cloud storage platforms that work with iOS 8's cloud APIs. Today, that means iCloud Drive, Box, and OneDrive out of the box. Dropbox access requires you be signed into an Office 365 account; "free" users can't use Dropbox from within Office.

Two methods for accessing cloud storage in Office 365 for iOS

Office 365 has two ways to access cloud-stored files: as a place (for OneDrive, OnbeDrive for Business, SharePoint, and Dropbox), or as a location (for iCloud Drive, Box, and other services that may adopt the iOS 8.1 APIs in the future). Basically, a place is a storage repository integrated directly by Microsoft into Office 365 and a location is one that is accessed via Apple's APIs.

In both cases, you access the cloud-stored files in the Open pane of an Office 365 app's file manager:

  • You access a location using the More menu to open the Locations form, then tapping the Locations button to select the desired storage service. You can work with only one service at a time this way. Currently, Box and iCloud Drive use the APIs that allow file-editing access via the Locations form. (Google Drive and Dropbox may appear in the Locations list, but they use a different iOS 8.1 cloud-storage API that does not permit direct file opening.)
  • You can add access to personal OneDrive, OneDrive for Business, SharePoint, and Dropbox using the Add a Place option, then signing in to that account with your credentials. You can have multiple "places" associated to Office 365 for iOS. (If you use Office without signing into a personal or business account, you can't connect to Dropbox.)
Office 365 for iOS storage places

In the type of storage known as places, Office 365 for iOS lets you open documents from and copy them to Dropbox, OneDrive, OneDrive for Business, and SharePoint file shares. Access to some of these services requires having an Office 365 account.

Office 365 for iOS storage locations

In the type of storage known as locations, Office 365 for iOS lets you open documents in Box and iCloud file shares (other services may be supported in the future), whether or not you have an Office 365 account.

Yes, you read this right: A user can access the free or other personal tier of an Office 365 subscription to work on documents stored in a corporate cloud storage location. Of course, most companies that provide OneDrive for Business or SharePoint access via Office 365 have purchased a corporate subscription that includes the Office suite and presumably expects its users to sign into the suite using their corporate credentials.

It turns out users don't have to. They can sign into a personal tier of Office 365 with their personal credentials and sign from there to a corporate OneDrive or SharePoint account using their corporate credentials, as well as to their Dropbox account.

Files can be copied among clouds, but not in all directions

No matter what tier of Office 365 subscription you have, it's fairly easy in the Office 365 apps to copy documents among places, using the Duplicate function in an open document. (You can't move a document this way, but you can save a copy into another storage place.)

Thus, to the likely horror of IT managers, it's straightforward to move corporate documents from OneDrive for Business or SharePoint into a personal OneDrive or Dropbox account, or into the iPad's local storage. IT can regulate some of this access if it uses Microsoft's Intune management tool, but not using the default iOS APIs, since they are designed to regulate access among apps, not within them.

But that ability to copy corporate documents into personal accounts is limited to personal OneDrive, Dropbox, and local iPad storage. When copying documents, you can't use the Locations form's storage services -- iCloud Drive, Box, or other cloud services that might adopt the iOS 8 file-access APIs -- as a destination for the copied document. The Locations form is used only for opening documents.

But once you open a document from one of these Location form's services, you can duplicate the file to save it in one of the places, such as your corporate OneDrive for Business account.

In other words, you can't copy a corporate document from, say, a place like OneDrive for Business to a location like iCloud Drive, but you can copy a document in the opposite direction.

Creating documents in Office limits where you can save them

There's another huge implication to Office's inability to save files to Box, iCloud Drive, or any Locations-accessed cloud storage service: You can't create new documents from your iPad or iPhone and then save them to a Locations-based storage service. You can save new documents only to a place, which means your device's local storage, OneDrive, OneDrive for Business, or Dropbox.

Any files you want to work on from Box or iCloud Drive need to have been created elsewhere and placed in that cloud storage service, or you need to email yourself the document from Office, then use the iOS Open In facility in the Mail app to save the document to Box or iCloud Drive.

It's clear that the new cloud support in mobile Office comes with a big asterisk. 

It'll be interesting to see how Microsoft addresses this dual set of storage-access approaches, both from a user interface perspective and from a security management perspective. Today, it's both confusing and messy for users and IT alike -- and overly limiting for users.

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