The Offline Collaborative Application – Microsoft and IBM approaches

With the recent release of Microsoft Office 2007 offline working became a richer experience with Groove 2007 and Outlook 2007, I’ll focus on Outlook here. Outlook allows offline access to different elements of data from within SharePoint sites. For the IBM customers using Notes this was nothing new but the 2 have distinct differences in architecture and approach.

  • IBM = Offline access from Domino which can be as function rich as the online access.
  • MS = Defined elements of SharePoint sites can be taken offline with Outlook
  • IBM = data stored within distinct databases locally for each application accessed via the workspace or bookmarks within the Notes client.
  • MS = data integrated within a single offline store accessed and visible from the inbox folder structure.

The Notes experience is to allow the user to take as much functionality offline as is possible, and depending upon how the notes application was coded you can in fact take absolutely everything securely offline to work with at your leisure, including bespoke workflow applications (if coded in that way). Online Domino has for many years been able to serve the same applications both to Notes clients and web browsers (with the extension to mobile clients as required). Each application is taken offline via the notes client menu bar (which can be difficult for some users) and then each application is stored separately on the workspace/bookmarked. The experience is very rich but in some cases can lead to confusion as to how to take applications offline and finding applications on a client where users have bookmarked many applications (although these issues have been addressed with some neat usability features in Notes 8 – a new menu bar with type ahead search for example and a “take application offline” menu option). One of the main issues with Notes generally is user perception, much of it caused by older versions of the client or badly coded applications or applications which have not been re-coded in many years (see previous post).

The “new player” on the block in this offline arena is Microsoft and they have taken a completely different approach. Serve the collaborative application via SharePoint and a browser but only serve limited elements of that to the offline clients. For the Microsoft clients the following papers describe that offline experience much better (Groove, Outlook). To take an element of an application offline the user must access that element in SharePoint and click on the “connect to outlook” link. This is much more intuitive than even the Notes 8 client BUT to take all the elements offline in Outlook you must go to each element you want to take offline and connect it to Outlook. There are third party tools which allow a richer offline experience for SharePoint namely Colligo and Iora but I will not comment further on those here (another post me-thinks!).

So there are 2 approaches in terms of what can be taken offline and how the process is initiated. IBM still need to do some work in making the “taking it offline” experience better and more intuitive (I’d suggest some guidelines for developers and standard buttons in all applications the “take offline” in addition to the menu based options). The offline experience for the user remains richest with the Notes client. The Microsoft approach allows distinct elements to be taken offline and the access to those elements is from within the “inbox” experience of Outlook. This ensures that the look, feel and functionality of the offline experience is controlled by the client – this can be both an advantage in terms of intuitive use but also a disadvantage in terms of limited offline capabilities compared to the online browser client. The Microsoft approach also restricts any offline working from bespoke SharePoint applications to the same set of offline capabilities which the client can support (i.e. none of your bespoke workflow). Having said that and listed a lot of limitations of Microsoft’s offline functionality its important to reflect on what people actually want to take offline and how the experience is surfaced to users. For example if I have a teamroom and have a discussion, a set of documents and a calendar then I can take those offline with Outlook and experience them in a manner which is easier on the eye, I can see from the folder view of my inbox if there is any new content, I can also overlay my personal and teamroom calendars (the latter being very powerful).

Its now interesting to see that the web 2.0 players are recognising the power of offline working and there are two good examples:

  • Socialtext : offline wikis via an application within a single HTML file.
  • Zimbra : plans for offline ajax client for their applications

Time for some opinion.  My opinion is that Microsoft need to work to improve the amount of offline functionality (and I’m sure that will happen in the next release of Office) and at the same time improve the way data is taken offline and how the ability to group that data in the folder views within Outlook. I’ll clarify that the method of taking data offline is better within the SharePoint / Outlook combination than Notes / Domino BUT I’d like the improvement to allow more than one element to be taken offline via the initial “connect to outlook” button (i.e. if I take a document library offline give me the option to take more elements of the same SharePoint site offline at the same time). Overall though I think Microsoft have the most intuitive experience for the user in terms of taking the data offline and serving that data to the user once offline.

IBM have by far the most comprehensive offline capabilities (I do have one gripe which is doclinks created from offline replicas do not then work when forwarded to others). To give kudos to IBM here with one example: 10 years ago I helped implement a combined CRM / Helpdesk / Sales Tracking system which allowed field sales and technical staff have access to all relevant information offline when talking with customers. This application overcame all their gripes about the then Notes 4.6 client because the it was so powerful and useful (e.g. before the sales person saw the customer they could check outstanding helpdesk calls and be appraised of issues they’d previously have been unaware of prior to their meeting hence they were perceived better by their customer). IBM needs to work on simplifying taking the application offline (and this has greatly improved in Notes release 8 but could be better). IBM also needs to reflect on guidelines and assistance for developers in order to make the offline experience relevant and complete. IBM would also benefit from thinking about the offline experience for their increasingly popular Websphere suite of products.

The ability to connect anywhere is not a reality for any of us and until that point offline access remains key. It is good to see IBM continuing to support this area and Microsoft becoming a more feature rich player.  Great timing, I recieved a trial key for Colligo Contributor today so at some point I’ll blog more about that!


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