Review: Office 365 fails at collaboration

Despite years of promises and gap-filling acquisitions, Microsoft's collaboration toolkit remains a woefully inadequate mishmash

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Document collaboration: Wait a bit longer for OneDrive for Business

Although we use older versions of Office extensively, we're looking forward to adopting the new Office 2016 tools now that they're available for Windows, OS X, iOS, and Android.

It was only this winter that a solid iPad version of the Office productivity apps finally arrived, and only this summer that we saw a somewhat solid Mac version. A decent Android version came out in early summer, and the Windows version only became available in September.

OneDrive for Business remains incomplete. Although the capable Office 2016 productivity suite (Word, Excel, and PowerPoint) is here, its principal sharing mechanism -- OneDrive for Business -- still doesn't work in OS X (its February beta version stopped working this summer), and its iOS and Android versions remain limited. 

As a result of these client limitations, OneDrive for Business makes it hard to distribute and access shared documents -- particularly if you want to treat OneDrive storage as a virtual drive on your computer or mobile device, in the way other cloud storage services work. On the Mac, you really have to use the Web client, which severely restricts how you get files into and out of OneDrive.

Yes, if you use Office 2016, you can create and save your documents into OneDrive for Business even on a Mac and share them from within the Office 2016 apps (that works well, by the way), but that works only with Office files. If you want to share a PDF, an image, a Photoshop project, or whatever -- you must drag those files into OneDrive for Business in your browser and use the sharing controls there. 

By contrast, Box, Dropbox, and Google Drive all integrate with the standard file systems in all major platforms, so you can use them as if they were local storage. Apple's iCloud Drive does the same in iOS and OS X. That makes them easy to use, so people actually use them -- not so with OneDrive for Business on the Mac, though there is such native integration in Windows, iOS, and Android.

Across all platforms, discovery of these shared documents is obtuse at best. Sharing a document is not enough for it to appear in someone's OneDrive repository; you also have to explicitly invite that person to the document, which is a lot of (error-prone) work in groups of any size. By comparison, the competing cloud storage tools make it much easier to see and find what is shared to you within their client apps. In fact, so does OneDrive for Business via a Web browser: It has the Shared With Me option, unlike the desktop and mobile clients.

Worse, Microsoft made the groups mechanism for Office 365 document sharing different than the one for Exchange email groups, so we have to build and maintain duplicate groups across email and documents. That split undercuts one of Office 365's key promises: a unified management system centered on Exchange and Active Directory.

Like many companies, our staff had long ago turned to other tools for document sharing. Google Apps in particular became popular because it combined document editing with sharing; other cloud tools like Box and Dropbox provide sharing but not editing. Office 365 is competing with Google Apps for users' buy-in.

Office 365 is slower than Google's tools, but you get a much richer set of editing tools in Office 365 (both in Office Online and the native Office 2016 apps) than you do in Google Apps. Google's tools are especially weak on the mobile platforms, which are increasingly popular places to do work.

Microsoft promises that OneDrive for Mac and revised versions for iOS and Android will ship this year, plugging big holes in Office 365's document collaboration. We hope so and will give it serious investigation if it ships. We'd like to retire the ad hoc use of Google Apps, but we can't until Microsoft delivers on Office 365 and OneDrive.

The Outlook Groups alternative is also incomplete. We have looked into another way to get the benefits of Office 365's promised document collaboration: the new Outlook Groups feature introduced in Outlook Web Access earlier this year and added to Outlook 2016 in September. Outlook Groups makes it easy to create ad hoc groups in Outlook for Windows, including creating shared workspaces for documents (basically through built-in access to OneDrive for Business), creating ad hoc shared Exchange calendars, and even messaging within the group.

Outlook Groups might sound like a mini-collaboration suite embedded in a tool we all have: Outlook. But Outlook Groups isn't available to the Outlook 2016 Mac client, and iOS and Android users can only monitor groups. It's in essence a Windows-only tool.

Even if Microsoft gets around to making it an equal citizen on the other platforms -- which it has not committed to -- Outlook Groups makes us nervous: Its messaging function works by sending emails to group members, placing those emails into the new Group Conversations email folder. People want to use a messaging service so that they don't have to use email for all communications, but chats in Outlook Groups aren't available in Microsoft's other two messaging tools: Yammer and Skype for Business (still Lync on OS X and Android). It's email or nothing when it comes to Outlook Groups chats.

For us, the messaging choice is to use something else, even if one day we can adopt Outlook Groups for document sharing and shared calendars.

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