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New Tools for Collaboration:

Volume Number: 25
Issue Number: 07
Column Tag: New Tools for Collaboration

New Tools for Collaboration: Introducing Microsoft Document Connection

"SharePoint parity for Macs?," or, "What users need to know about Microsoft's newest collaboration tool."

by William Smith

Making working with SharePoint a little more seamless

Windows in a Windows world...

Microsoft products for Windows are made to work together - seamlessly.

Windows users can log in to workstations with their Active Directory credentials and from that point forward they have seamless access to internal resources such as SharePoint, Microsoft's workgroup collaboration server. When they open documents from SharePoint sites, they can edit and save them as if everything existed on their Desktops. No authentication and no switching between applications.

Life is good for Windows users in a Windows world.

Macs in a Windows world...

On the other hand, to be a Mac user in a Windows world can be challenging at best or downright aggravating at worst. To edit a SharePoint document, a Mac user must log in to the site, check out and download a document, edit it, use a browser to upload and check in the document and specify whether or not to save over the existing file. That's hardly the transparent and seamless experience that Windows users enjoy.

Life is not seamless for Mac users in a Windows world.

A new SharePoint client for Macs

Microsoft's Macintosh Business Unit (MacBU) has introduced a new application in Service Pack 2 (SP2) for Office 2008 for Mac called Microsoft Document Connection. Document Connection was first introduced as the Microsoft Office Document Collaboration Companion at Macworld 2009 and has since then undergone a name change and interface update during its private beta this past spring.

Document Connection offers Mac users a "more seamless" experience with SharePoint 2003 and 2007 sites as well as with Office Live Workspace, which means this tool isn't just for the enterprise but for school and home users of Office for Mac too. It is installed with the free Office 2008 for Mac SP2 update and is not available separately.

Why is "more seamless" in quotes? Although Document Connection does make working with SharePoint and Office Live Workspace easier, it's still a separate application that must be running to facilitate interaction with the servers. Compared to the old way of working with SharePoint, though, this is of little consequence and shouldn't discourage anyone from using it.

Using the Document Connection

The Creative Agency

Let's examine the features and details of Document Connection by putting it into use in a fictional group called the Creative Agency. The Creative Agency is the name for a team of designers, artists, production workers, copywriters and traffickers working within the Marketing department for a large enterprise.

This group of about 20 Mac users lives in a predominantly Windows environment. They not only provide creative content for marketing promotions and advertising campaigns, but they provide in-house services such as preparing presentations for Sales and Executives.

The Creative Agency has been instructed to handle most of their projects using SharePoint so that other departments can submit work and track progress. This has been painful for the Mac users since using SharePoint has been a very manual process for a lot of work. They have been working with SharePoint using Safari and Firefox on their G5s. The budget for new Intel Mac Pro workstations, which would allow them to at least access SharePoint in virtual Windows machines, keeps getting delayed.

Setting up Document Connection

Marty is a production artist within the Creative Agency. His role is to merge design layouts, art and copy into various electronic formats and make them ready for proofing or press. He and the rest of the group have been given an overview of the new Document Connection application in a one-hour staff meeting and now he's ready to set up his workspace and begin using the software, which was installed over the weekend.

He locates the Microsoft Document Connection.app application within the Microsoft Office 2008 folder in his Applications folder and double-clicks to open it.


Figure 1. Document Connection window

Without connecting to a SharePoint site or an Office Live Workspace site, Marty can do very little other than browse a few menus. Using the Add Location button, he enters the same URL into Document Connection that he would use to connect to the Creative Agency SharePoint site. He has three options to authenticate to his SharePoint server: Basic, Kerberos and NTLMv2. He chooses Kerberos from the Authentication drop-down menu because his Mac is bound to Active Directory and he can take advantage of single sign-on. Once logged in to his Mac, he will not have to continue entering his login credentials to connect to his SharePoint sites.

For the curious Sys Admins: Document Connection stores its data in ~/Library/Microsoft/Office 2008/. Images and files are cached to "Document Connection.mdccache", a package-style folder that mirrors the SharePoint site folder hierarchy. Connection data, such as server addresses and file metadata, is stored in a "DocumentConnection.xml" file. Because this is not a .plist file, Document Connection cannot be managed using Managed Client for Mac OS X preferences (MCX).


Figure 2. Add Location for SharePoint

The Creative Agency site is set up in SharePoint to act as a portal to some sub-sites - Art, Copywriting, Design, Production and Traffic. Therefore it contains no document folders or lists on the main site. When Marty compares what he sees in Document Connection to the SharePoint site, he finds that a folder represents each sub-site.


Figure 3. Creative Agency SharePoint site in a web browser


Figure 4. Creative Agency SharePoint site in Document Connection

Just like the SharePoint site, Marty can start at the top level of the Creative Agency website, represented in the source list at the left of Document Connection, and begin drilling down into sub-sites, document libraries and folders to find what he needs. (The "users" icon on a folder denotes a sub-site, the "document" icon on a folder denotes a document library and folders are plain folders.) He will, however, have a frequent need to access some time sheet forms that are buried a couple of folders deep. These time sheets are being modified and updated all the time with new billing codes, so keeping copies of them on his Desktop isn't practical. Instead, he can navigate to the Time Sheets folder in the Production sub-site and drag these forms to his Favorites Files in the source list.


Figure 5. Favorite Files

Marty has another SharePoint location that he frequently accesses for style sheets. This is a folder of more than 200 template files and documents for formatting customer brochures and it is located under the Design sub-site of the Creative Agency website. Dragging all of these documents to his Favorite Files area would not be practical. Instead, he navigates to the Style Sheets folder in Document Connection and drags it under the SHAREPOINT header in the left-hand source list. This area, similar to the Favorite Files area, can be used for favorite folders as well as favorite sites. While he's at it, Marty goes ahead and adds a few more favorite folders to the SHAREPOINT sites list.


Figure 6. Favorite sites and folders

What Document Connection can and cannot do

Before going any further, let's talk about what Document Connection can and cannot do.

SharePoint offers many features such as file storage, calendars, discussions lists, task management and surveys. Document Connection is strictly for managing files. That includes documents and image files. It cannot connect to, read nor manipulate calendars, blogs, wikis and other site items that you can see through SharePoint in a web browser. Files only.

Document Connection also cannot create, edit nor delete document or image libraries. Instead, it can only interact with the contents of existing libraries. Again, files only.

Think of Document Connection as a SharePoint file browser. It is actually akin to a Windows-only SharePoint menu item called Explorer View, which provides navigation via a simple folder hierarchy and enables quick file uploads and downloads. While Document Connection does not offer a tree list view, it does offer a simpler view of shared libraries and folders that can be traversed using keyboard commands or the mouse.

Starting work

Now that Marty has set up his SharePoint connection and added some favorites for quick access to frequently visited areas, he's ready to start working. He has received instructions for a simple job to update a logo in a customer brochure.

First, he reviews the style sheet for the job. Style sheets are simple Microsoft Word documents containing font lists, logo placement instructions, approved colors and examples of acceptable style. The Design team maintains these style sheets whereas Marty is part of the Production team. He has read-only access to their files. Therefore, Marty selects the style sheet and clicks the Read button in the menu bar. Document Connection downloads the document to a temporary location on Marty's computer and opens the file in Microsoft Word. The file icon in Document Connection indicates the document is open for "Reading".


Figure 7. A file open for Reading

After viewing the document and simply closing the file, Document Connection automatically updates its status to reflect no activity.

Next, Marty needs to find a black & white logo for the brochure he's updating. Since he often has to modify logos he has added the Logos folder to his SHAREPOINT locations. He doesn't find a black & white version of the logo he needs but he does find a color file that he can quickly convert in Photoshop. This time, instead of double-clicking the file in Document Connection, he right-clicks the file and selects Save As... from the contextual menu.


Figure 8. Save As... contextual menu

Marty could also drag the file to his Desktop or to a folder in the Finder. In this case, since his "Work in Progress" folder for this project wasn't in view, he decided to use the Save As... command to open a dialog window where he could navigate through his local folders.

Later, the new black & white logo is ready and Marty needs to place the image into an existing QuarkXPress document. That document is also located on SharePoint in the customer's folder. When he locates the XPress document, he simply double-clicks the file, which downloads the XPress document from the server and opens it in QuarkXPress. This time Document Connection displays the status of the file as "Editing".


Figure 9. A file open for Editing

About editing files

By allowing Document Connection to download a file for editing, you're also allowing it to handle the upload as well. This is where Document Connection shines. Document Connection will not only download a file but it will also open the file in your default application. This is something that Safari with SharePoint will no longer do automatically for security reasons. Also, uploading can be as easy as simply saving the document, clicking the Upload button in Document Connection or quitting the editing application.

Different documents will behave in different ways, though. Document Connection is part of the Office 2008 for Mac SP2 update and Excel, PowerPoint and Word have themselves been updated to work with it. They are Document Connection aware. These three applications will provide the most seamless user experience because they can signal Document Connection when you make changes and save a file.

While a document is open in any of these three Microsoft Office applications and when the Save button is clicked, the application will signal to Document Connection to upload changes to the SharePoint server immediately. Document Connection will indicate that it is uploading the file below the file name.


Figure 10. A file Uploading to SharePoint

Non-Office applications will require some additional effort to keep document updates on the server. The QuarkXPress document that Marty selected earlier through Document Connection will still open in QuarkXPress and Document Connection will reflect that the file is being edited. However, updating the server with changes in the document will require two steps instead of just one.

When changes to a non-Office document have been saved using the Save command, those changes are stored in the locally cached version of the document. The user must do one of two things to upload those changes to the server. He can return to Document Connection and click the Upload button to force an upload where he will have the choice to Upload Changes or Upload File. Upload Changes will keep the file open for further editing whereas Upload File will upload the changes and cancel the editing status in Document Connection. If the file is still open when Upload File has been selected, it will remain open but no further changes can be uploaded through Document Connection. Further changes will have to be made locally, saved to a new document and then uploaded via SharePoint or through Document Connection manually.

Document Connection is aware of the applications it has launched. Therefore, if a file is open for editing and then the application is quit, Document Connection is smart enough to automatically upload the latest saved changes to the SharePoint server.

Another SharePoint feature that Document Connection can utilize is Check Out and Check In. A file opened from Document Connection is automatically locked while it is being edited to prevent someone else from editing the same document at the same time. This is a short-term lock. Users can click the Check Out button when they want to put a long-term lock on a file. This is ideal for files that need extensive editing and may be in progress for several hours or several days.

Changes to documents will be saved locally to the machine until the user clicks the Check In button. During the Check In process Document Connection will prompt the user to enter comments about the changes to the document, which is similar to the behavior of checking in a document through SharePoint.


Figure 11. Comments during Check In

If the SharePoint owner has modified the View for that particular folder to display the Check In Comment column, then other users can see the comments uploaded through Document Connection.


Figure 12. SharePoint with Check In Comment column

With changes made to the document and a PDF proof uploaded to the SharePoint site, Marty finishes with a little trick he learned in his training. He selects the PDF in Document Connection and selects Copy from the Edit menu or just types Command + C. In his E-mail message to the Customer Service representative for this account, he now selects Paste from the Edit menu or just types Command + V. This pastes the full URL to the document into his message. To view the proof, his recipient just clicks on the hyperlink Marty has created for her.

Navigation

After a while, Marty has become familiar with Document Connection's capabilities and its limitations and he's comfortable using it in his production environment. Now, he wants to kick it up a notch. As a production artist, he's very keyboard savvy and prefers to use the mouse as little as possible or take advantage of shortcuts and contextual menus. This affords him an extra speed boost, which can be critical during peak production cycles. Document Connection has several ways to navigate its interface.

Using the Up and Down arrow keys, Marty can move up and down through the items in the file list on the right. Using Command + ≠ and Command + ø, he can move up and down the folder hierarchy just like he can with the Finder.

Between the toolbar at the top of the Document Connection window and the file list below is a navigation bar with a breadcrumb trail that shows Marty his location within the SharePoint site at all times. Clicking anywhere within that breadcrumb trail will take him directly to a folder or site. If he decides that he wants to add one of these breadcrumbs to his SHAREPOINT list for quicker access, all he has to do is drag it from the breadcrumb trail into the source list.


Figure 13. Breadcrumb trail in the navigation bar

To the left of this breadcrumb trail are Forward and Backward buttons that are similar to those in the Finder and with similar keyboard commands. Using Command + ] or Command + [, Marty can navigate through his history of locations. This is akin to using the Forward and Backward arrows in a web browser too.

Document Connection makes use of a couple of contextual menus too. Marty uses his Adobe Acrobat application to view most of his PDFs in SharePoint because he needs to either add hyperlinks or apply a password before sending out a document to a client. Sometimes, though, Marty just wants to view the PDF and he finds that the Preview application is much faster to load. He can right-click or Control-click the PDF in Document Connection, select either Edit With... or Open Read-Only With... and then select Preview from the list of available options.


Figure 14. File list contextual menu

Again, Document Connection is limited and Marty often still needs to refer to the SharePoint website in his web browser. The second contextual menu, which Marty uses a lot, takes him directly to the site or folder he has selected under SHAREPOINT in the source list. He just needs to right-click or Control-click the site or folder and select Open in Browser... to open his default browser to that location.


Figure 15. Site and folder list contextual menu

The best shortcut that Marty has found, however, is the ability to upload or download multiple documents at once. His Windows counterparts have enjoyed being able to use the Explorer View menu item in SharePoint to copy many files to the server or to their Desktops and now he's finally able to do this as well. All Marty has to do is open a documents folder in Document Connection and drag one or more files from his computer into the window to upload his files. He can download multiple files by dragging them from Document Connection window to his computer.


Figure 16. Multiple simultaneous uploads

A similar method applies if Marty wants to edit, check out or check in multiple files. To edit multiple files he can choose all of them in the Document Connection window and select Edit from the File menu. This is especially handy if he needs to make quick changes to many files at once. Remember, if he's using an application outside of Office for Mac then he can edit and save but none of his changes will be uploaded until he either clicks the Upload button in Document Connection or quits his editing application.

Quitting time

So, by the end of the day, Marty's work is done. He's made his edits, uploaded his files and he's ready to go home. He starts quitting his applications before shutting down his machine, but when he tries to quit Document Connection he receives a message telling him that he still has files open.


Figure 17. Files open for editing

Uh oh, which files? Marty has worked in two-dozen folders all day and whatever is open could be anywhere on the SharePoint server. For the first time, he notices the Drafts item in the source list on the left and selects it. Sure enough, he sees an image file that is part of a large group of files he was editing earlier. He had minimized it into his Dock and had forgotten about it.


Figure 18. Drafts

A quick double-click on the file in Document Connection restores the image file to view and Marty saves his work to the server. The second time he is able to quit Document Connection.

What would have happened if Marty had quit Document Connection while the file was still open? One of its features is that it will preserve the status or file state between launches. If Marty had decided to wait until tomorrow morning to make the final edits then he could still click the Quit button and quit his editing application too. The next day he would be able to launch Document Connection, look in the Drafts list and re-open his document. Document Connection would still upload his file just as if he had opened it from the SharePoint server a few minutes earlier.

What lies ahead?

Send feedback

The MacBU has released very little about its next version of Office for Mac after Office 2008, therefore public thoughts about future plans for Document Connection are just speculation. Will it continue to be an additional tool bundled with Office for Mac like Remote Desktop Connection and Messenger? Or will its functionality possibly be incorporated into a later version of the product like the Open XML File Converters for Office 2004? How seamless will MacBU make working with SharePoint in the future?

As a first-generation SharePoint tool for the Mac, Document Connection has a lot of room for improvement. While it's leaps and bounds beyond using the Level 2 SharePoint web interface provided to Safari and Firefox clients, it still needs picture previews, better integration with non-Office applications and support for the additional information that we can only view in SharePoint itself.

Life can be good for Mac users too in a Windows world. Most of Office for Mac's applications have Send Feedback tool under the Help menu to send suggestions or make requests to the MacBU. Use it to help make Document Connection a better tool. MacBU will be all ears.


William Smith is a technical analyst supporting Macs in a Windows world in the Twin Cities, a six-year Microsoft MVP and is co-founder of the Entourage Help Blog http://blog.entourage.mvps.org. He can be reached at bill@talkingmoose.net.

 
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