SharePoint: Simply C%@p, or Really Complicated C%@p?

There’s a common requirement for professional users of online document management systems. Sometimes you want to have access to a subset of files offline, with the ability to upload changes when you have finished work and are connected again. Genuine professional document management solutions like Open Text LiveLink have been able to do this for years, frequently with a little desktop add-in which presents part of the document library as a pseudo-drive in Windows Explorer.

Microsoft SharePoint can’t do this. It has never been able to do this, and it still can’t. Microsoft have worked out that it’s a requirement, they just seem completely incapable of implementing a usable solution to achieve it, despite the fact that doing so would instantly bridge a significant gap between their online DM solution and their desktop products.

For the first 10 years, they had no solution at all. Then Office 2010 introduced "Microsoft SharePoint Workspace 2010". This promises, but under-delivers. It can cache all documents in a site into a hidden folder on your PC, and allows access to them through an application which looks a little bit like Windows Explorer, but isn’t. It’s very fiddly, and breaks all the rules about how you expect Office apps to work. It’s also slow and unreliable. Google it, and you find bloggers who usually praise Microsoft products to the skies using words like "excrable". Despite at least three office releases since 2010, Microsoft don’t appear to have made any attempt to fix it.

There’s now an alternative option, in the form of OneDrive for Business. This has a different balance of behaviours. On the upside, you can control where it syncs files so that they do appear in Explorer in a controlled fashion. On the downside, you can only link to a single SharePoint site (not much use if you have a client with multiple sites for different groups), and it still insists on synching all files in bulk, which is not what you want at all. On top of that I couldn’t get it to authenticate reliably, and was seeing a lot of failed synchronisations leaving my copy in an indeterminate state. There’s supposed to be a major rewrite in progress, bringing it more inline with the personal version of OneDrive, which works quite well, but no sign of anything useful yet…

Having wasted enough time on a Microsoft-only solution, I reverted to a solution which does work fairly well, using the excellent Syncback Pro. You have to log in using  Internet Explorer and the "keep me signed in" setting before it will work, but after that it delivers exactly what I want, allowing the selection of an exact subset of files, and the location of the copy on your PC, with intelligent two-way synchronisation. Perfect.

Perfect? Well, sort of. Syncback works very well, but even it can’t work around some fundamental limitations of SharePoint. The biggest problem is that when SharePoint ingests a file, at resets both the file modified date and the file created date to be the date and time of ingestion! When you export or check the file, it therefore appears to be a changed, later version than the one you uploaded. Proper professional DM systems just don’t do this, and the Syncback guys haven’t found a solution. Worse, I discovered that SharePoint process was marking some files as checked in, and therefore visible to other users, and some as still checked out to me, and therefore invisible to others.

The latter is a real problem, since the point of uploading the files is to share them with others. It’s also very fiddly to fix as SharePoint doesn’t seem to provide any list of files checked out, and there’s no mechanism to check files in in bulk – you have to click on each file individually and go through the manual check-in process.

Aha, I thought. Surely Microsoft’s excellent development tools will allow me to quickly knock up a little utility to search through a site, find the files checked out to me, and programmatically check them in. Unfortunately not. the first red flag was the fact that on a PC with full installations of Office and a couple of versions of Visual Studio, there’s no installed object model for SharePoint. After a lot of Googling I found a download called the "Office Developer Tools for VS 2013". I didn’t think I needed this, given what I already had installed, but ran the installer anyway. This took longer to complete than a full installation of Office or Visual Studio would, and in the process silently closed all my open office apps, losing some work. When it finished I still couldn’t see the SharePoint objects immediately, but adding a couple of references to my project manually finally worked. Right up to the point where I tried to test run the project, at which point the execution failed on the first line. It appears that these objects are designed to only support development but the code must execute on a server running SharePoint – there’s no concept of developing a desktop tool remotely interrogating a library.

OK, I thought. What about web services? I remember in the early days of SharePoint I was able to use SOAP web services to access and interrogate it, and I thought the same should still be true. To cut a long story short, that’s wrong. There’s no simple listing of the API, and attempting to interrogate services using Visual Studio’s usually excellent tools failed at the first post, with unresolveable authentication errors. In addition they seem to have moved to a REST API which is fundamentally much more difficult to drive if you don’t have a clear API listing. A lot of developers seem to be complaining about similar issues. I did find a couple of articles with sample code, but it all seems to be very complicated compared with what I remembered of the original SOAP API.

After wasting a couple of hours on "quickly knocking up a little utility" I gave up, at least for now. Back to the manual check-in method…

I’ve never been a fan of SharePoint, but it appears to be betting worse, not better. At least the first versions were simply cr@p. The new versions are very complicated cr@p.

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