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SharePoint 2003 and Macs

Volume Number: 22 (2006)
Issue Number: 6
Column Tag: Microsoft / Mac In The Enterprise

SharePoint 2003 and Macs

How to make the most of the experience

by Brian Johnson

Introduction

Microsoft SharePoint is a collaboration tool that's designed to help users share documents and information on the network. SharePoint has traditionally been designed to work very well on Windows clients, specifically on Internet Explorer in Windows. The reason for that is pretty simple: much of the rich functionality that SharePoint exposes through IE comes via ActiveX controls, which are supported only in IE on Windows. So what's a Mac user to do? In this article, I'll take you on a tour of SharePoint from a Mac user's perspective. I'll show you what works on the Mac and how users can work around some of the limitations faced when using a Mac with SharePoint.



Figure 1. A new Team site in SharePoint

SharePoint Background

To understand SharePoint better, it's worth describing the difference between the two main versions of the product. These versions are Windows SharePoint Services (WSS) and Microsoft SharePoint Portal Server.

Windows SharePoint Services is the version of SharePoint that's included with Microsoft Windows Server 2003. WSS features include alerts, browser-based customization, discussion boards, document libraries, document workspaces, meeting workspaces, lists, surveys, templates, and web part pages.

Microsoft SharePoint Portal Server 2003 is an enterprise level portal server, designed for use in large organizations that require additional enterprise features. These additional features include My Site (a SharePoint for individual users with support for personal and public data views), indexing across file shares, web servers, Microsoft Exchange public folders, and different SharePoint sites, integration with BizTalk Server, enhanced alerts, and single sign on for enterprise application integration.

All the features of Windows SharePoint Services are available in SharePoint Portal Server, so in this article I'll focus on the features of WSS, keeping in mind that each feature will work much the same way in SharePoint Portal Server 2003.

Typical Usage Scenario

SharePoint is typically used to share files on the network. It's usually an easier file sharing method for end-users than standard file shares because it employs a Web interface that makes it very easy to use. A new SharePoint site is created by an individual that needs to share a number of files with others in an organization. These files are placed in a Document Library in the SharePoint site. Figure 1 (previous page) shows a Windows SharePoint Services site running on Microsoft Windows Server 2003.

To get to the shared files, a user clicks on the Shared Documents link on the left side of the home page. This opens the view shown in Figure 2.



Figure 2. A SharePoint Document Library

The Shared Documents page contains a toolbar that provides for the creation of a new document, uploading a document, and creating a new folder. Note that new document creation doesn't work from within SharePoint on the Mac. To add a new document, you'll need to create it locally and upload it to the library. In addition, the Filter link allows the user to create a filtered view of the documents and folders on the share. Finally the Edit in Datasheet view allows a user on Windows running IE to show and edit the data on the page in a grid. This grid is provided by an ActiveX control and so it doesn't work on the Mac. For the most part, this isn't a problem because you can use the Filter option on the page to provide you with pretty good lists of the files on the share. If you do click the Edit in Datasheet link from a Mac, you'll get a message box that explains that this feature requires Internet Explorer.

A user running Office 2003 on Windows has a number of options for dealing with the content in this folder at this point. She can check out the file, which locks it for editing, she can open the document read-only for viewing, or she can click on the Explorer View link on the left side of the page to get a Window into the share on the server. From there she can right-click individual items in the folder and act on these items as if she's working on a standard network share.

The Mac user has fewer options, but it is possible to checkout, edit, and update the documents stored on the share. You simply need to download the document you want to edit, make your changes locally, and then copy the file back up to the share. Clicking on an individual item from the Firefox browser opens the page shown in Figure 3. From this page you can edit the file name (Edit Item), delete the file, and you can even check the file in and out for editing. In this case, I've checked out the file for editing, so my option reads Check In.



Figure 3. A document is checked out

Where this would be somewhat automated in Windows the workflow for checking out a document, making your edits, and checking the document back in on the Mac are as follows:

    1. Check out the document by clicking Check Out in the browser. This will prevent others from making changes to the document while you are editing it.

    2. Click the title of the document and download the document to your local machine.

    3. Make the changes that you want to the document and save it.

    4. When you're ready to upload your changes, click Go Back to Document Library on the document page.

    5. Click Upload Document and upload your updated document to the share.

    6. Click file name in the share and then click the Check In button.

The file will have been updated and so others can now check it out and make changes to it.

Since this process isn't very automated, you'll need to keep track of the file that you've downloaded. If you lose the checked out file, it's no problem because the file is still located on the share. You can just download it again, make your changes, and upload it to the share.

Copying the file back up to the share requires that you overwrite the previous version of the document. For that reason, it's worth turning on version control in SharePoint. To do so, just click Version History and then click Modify versioning settings to open the Document Library Settings. Here you can go to the Document Versions section on the page and select Yes. After this, check in and check out will store a previous version of the document. If needed, you can then review the previous versions of the document, or revert to an earlier version. Keep in mind that versioning is going to require extra space on the server because the files will be copied each time they are checked out and in. You can see the Versions page for a document in Figure 4.



Figure 4. Document Versions in SharePoint

There are two other things to note about using files from SharePoint on the Mac. First, the document Discussions feature won't work on the Mac, so any discussions about the document in the document library itself will need to be done on a Windows machine. Since most people comment on the document from within Word, Excel, or PowerPoint itself, this may or may not present a problem, but it's an issue you should be aware of if you administer or use these sites to share data.

Second, alerts do work on the Mac, so if you set an alert on a particular document in the library, you can receive an e-mail when the file is checked in or out, or you can even receive a daily or weekly summary or the activity for the file. You can also be notified of discussion updates. This might be handy if you have a lot of Mac users and you want to let the Windows users know they should consider an different communication method if they want everyone to see what they have to say about the document. General Discussion boards in SharePoint also work on Macs, so you could possibly steer discussions about the documents to that area as an alternative.

Creating and Editing SharePoint Content

Feature                Description              Works on an OS X Mac?

Document Library       Stores collections              Yes
                       of documents       
   
Form Library           XML Based                 No (Requires InfoPath)
                       business forms

Picture Library        Store and share                 Yes 
                       photos.
                       
Links                  List of Web and                 Yes
                       file share links
                       
Announcements          List of                         Yes
                       announcements      

Contacts               Contact database                Yes
   
Events                 Calendar of                     Yes
                       events
   
Tasks                  List of taks                    Yes
   
Issues                 An issues                       Yes
                       tracking database
                       
Custom List            Specify your                    Yes
                       own columns
   
Custom List            Edit a custom list               No   
in Datasheet View      as a Datasheet

Import                 Create a new list                No 
Spreadsheet            from an existing 
                       spreadsheet

Discussion             Discuss issues                  Yes   
Board                  related to project

Survey                 Create a survey                 Yes
                       for users
   
Basic Page             Create a new                    Yes
                       simple Web page
   
Web Part               Add a Web page                  Yes
Page                   consisting of Web Parts

Sites and              Create a new sub                Yes
Workspaces             site to your 
                       SharePoint

While Document Libraries are probably the most used feature of SharePoint, these sites have much more to offer users, and you can access almost all of this functionality from a Mac. Clicking the Create link at the top of a SharePoint site opens the Create Page. This page lets you create new lists, libraries, custom pages, and even new SharePoint sub sites. Table 1 lists the content you can create from this page and I've marked whether or not the items work on the Mac.

The caveat to all of this is that there are some features of these pages that don't work for Mac users. In general, anything that requires a direct link to an Office application on Windows uses an ActiveX control for that link and so it won't be accessible. For example, you can create and edit a list in Excel on the Mac, but to turn that list into SharePoint list using the Import Spreadsheet function, you'll need to do so on a Windows machine.

One of the best things about SharePoint is the number of templates available for creating all sorts of useful content. Figure 5 shows the Template Selection page for a new SharePoint site. In addition to the standard Team Site, there are templates for meetings, social groups, and even for classroom planning.



Figure 5. Creating a new SharePoint site

If we choose Classroom Management from the list of templates on the page we can create a new SharePoint subsite that's pre-populated with content that we can use to plan and execute a new course. You can see the site created in Figure 6.



Figure 6. The new Class SharePoint

This new site contains a syllabus, lecture plans, grading spreadsheets, discussion boards, and just a ton of other tools that instructors can use to plan and execute a course of study. Nearly every feature available in this SharePoint site is available to the Mac user.

Browser Considerations

It's worth noting that while sites will work from both Safari and Firefox on the Mac, default SharePoint sites currently render a little better in Firefox. The good news is that while the rendering in non-IE browsers isn't always perfect, system administrators who need to, can tweak the style sheets in SharePoint to improve the experience.

The next version of SharePoint (SharePoint Server 2007) is currently scheduled to be released in the same time frame as Microsoft Office 2007 for Windows. SharePoint Server 2007 is being fully tested on the most popular Mac browsers. This should make for an improved user experience on Macs and other platforms.

Conclusion

While it's pretty obvious that SharePoint does take advantage of some Windows specific features when you're using Internet Explorer on Windows, the experience can be still be quite full and rich on the Macintosh. You can build new sites, create new content, and you can manage that content, all from your Mac. The trickiest part of this is checking out and editing documents, mostly because it's a less automated task on the Mac. In this article, I've tried to describe a workflow that should make it fairly easy for Mac users to live in a SharePoint world and to take advantage of all the great functionality that this product has to offer. In my next article, I'll take you on a tour of the SharePoint Server 2007 from a Mac user's perspective.


Brian Johnson is a Product Manager with Microsoft's Macintosh Business Unit. You can read his blog at http://bufferoverrun.net and you can drop him a line at brianjo@microsoft.com

 
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