Hands-on With Microsoft’s New Document Connection Tool

In my article Macs in the Enterprise: A Firsthand Tale, I mentioned the hardship I was having dealing with editing documents directly from a SharePoint site.

As a result, I can only perform the most basic of tasks. I can upload and approve documents, but I can’t edit a document directly on the server as I can if I’m accessing the library on Internet Explorer and a Microsoft SharePoint-compatible application. It’s kind of a pain downloading and re-uploading documents when the changes are relatively minor. Later this year, Microsoft is planning on adding the ability for Office 2008 to interact directly with SharePoint, so that might help.

That functionality was part of the recently-released Service Pack 2 for Office 2008. Specifically, you can now check out, edit, and check in documents directly on a SharePoint site. I had a few moments today to test it out and here’s my report from an hour or so of testing.

Before I get too far into the SharePoint tools, I wanted to talk about the speed increases. I have a 2006 MacBook with 2GB of RAM. Even running the latest version of Office 2008, my load times were fairly long. I’ve noticed a significant improvement with SP2. I didn’t do any time tests, but they feel about half what they were. They certainly patched in more snappy.

Without getting into the PC/Mac debate too much, I’ll just say how Microsoft has integrated SharePoint within Office 2007 for the PC is amazing — I can even launch workflows on documents. The Document Connection Tool, however, earns an enthusiastic “Eh, well, it’s not bad.” Granted, I can finally edit a document on the site without jumping through a lot of hoops, I still can’t manage workflows and approve documents for publication. It’s not a big omission; I can do those just fine from the browser.

While the Document Connection Tool is a standalone program, you can access it from the File menu in Word and PowerPoint (oddly, I did not see the option in Excel).

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The Open From Document Connection Screen

The first time you launch the program, you’ll be greated with a blank window. Choose “Connect to a SharePoint Site…”

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A blank Document Connection Screen

Enter in your SharePoint info.

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Entering in your SharePoint information

You can also connect to an Office Live Workspace (an online collaboration tool similar to, but not exactly like, Google Docs). Regardless of which you connect to, you’ll manage your documents in this screen (for Corporate Security reasons, I’m showing the connection to my personal Office Live Workspace, not my company’s SharePoint site).

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Managing Documents

You manage documents in either location similarly. The biggest difference is in SharePoint you click “Check Out” to edit a document; in Office Live you click “Edit.” In terms of working with existing workspaces in Office Live, the Document Connection Tool is adequate. When it comes to managing those workspaces, it’s not that great. While I can upload a new document to an Office Live workspace (its version of folders), it doesn’t appear I can create new workspaces or delete documents (the “discard” button is grayed out).

Also, these tools seem to assume you have an Internet connection. There doesn’t appear to be any sort of offline syncing similar to Google Gears — while the press release claims offline document caching, I haven’t seen where the cache files are kept, and the only way I’ve been able to open a cached file is from the Recents menu. However, that’s from testing with Office Live, I didn’t test with my production documents on my SharePoint site.

While the Document Connection Tool is a good first step, there are a few things I’d like to see added: the ability to approve documents and manage workflows on a SharePoint site, and the ability to check out a document from both SharePoint and Office Live for offline editing — or make it clearer where I can find them.

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