SharePoint in Office 365: the Good, the Bad, the Brilliant and the Ugly

What is Office 365 SharePoint Online like when you use it for real? And what potential application does it have for helping in learning?

Office 365 logoMy company has been using Office 365 in anger for a month or so now, here is a review of the SharePoint component from a general business user perspective with a bias to using it for learning. Do things work well (the “Good”), how much of a problem are the documented weaknesses (the “Bad”), what makes a real difference (the “Brilliant”) and what is unexpected (the “Ugly”)?

Some small print: The opinions in this review are mine and do not reflect the views of my employer; note also that we are using the E3 package, and the features of Office 365 do vary by package.

The Good

Most of the good points come from standard SharePoint:

  • Make site and pages easily. It’s a few minutes work to create a site to store documents on or allow people to collaborate on. You do it all within the UI, and then people can access it, learn from it or collaborate in it.
  • Set up lists to track things. For example, I run our annual data security competency tests in my company, and use a SharePoint list to track when people are due for a test (see here for more on this).
  • Search. SharePoint 2010 has a great search engine, and the searching within Office 365 seems fast and easy, you can often find what you are looking for.
  • Security. If you have confidential data or material you want to hide from learners, it’s easy to do so.
  • Workflow is available without coding. It’s easy to add workflow to a list, you just click on one of the ribbon options and you can open up SharePoint Designer to do this. For instance send an email when someone is allocated a task or when someone submits an assignment, send an email or assign a task to a grader.

Workflow menu options in ribbon

Assessment within Office 365

  • All the rest of SharePoint is there too. There is an awful lot to explore, for instance there are over 75 web parts to choose from including Excel and Visio web access .
  • The other parts of Office 365 are pretty useful too! Lync is a great improvement on Windows Live Messenger on Live Meeting. Having someone host Exchange for you is a boon, and the various Office applications fit in well with SharePoint Online.

The Bad

There are lots of standard SharePoint 2010 capabilities which are not possible in SharePoint Online. Here are the three I find painful.

  • You can’t use Windows Live Writer to write blogs for SharePoint Office 365. You either have to use the inbuilt SharePoint UI or else if you want to write offline, you can use Word. Word is okay for blogging, but I miss some of the capabilities of Windows Live Writer, especially the ways it will make thumbnails of images for you and other ways to manage pictures in blogs.
  • Email enabled lists and libraries aren’t permitted. There are all sorts of applications for this as a way of getting in data from outside. See for instance Pushing results into SharePoint from an Assessment System using Email, but this is not permitted in Office 365.
  • Third party add-in programs are very restricted. Indeed almost all of those currently available won’t work due to the restrictions. Watch out for this to change, as a lot of vendors are busily writing applications that will fit within what Microsoft allow, but for the moment, it’s a restriction.

The Brilliant

Do any kind of search on the web for SharePoint and you will find articles on SharePoint farm organization, setting up search indexing, how to set up SQL Server to run SharePoint and other technical articles on setting up SharePoint.  There are thousands of complex articles out there explaining how to install and configure SharePoint effectively.

The great thing about SharePoint Online is that you don’t need to know any setup stuff – Microsoft does it for you!

Yes, I’ll repeat that. The great thing about SharePoint Online is that you don’t need to know any setup stuff – Microsoft does it for you!

If you want to set up a site for a learning project, you wouldn’t want all the hassle of setting up SharePoint on servers, but now you can just pay some money and do it in the Cloud.

And the Ugly

There are a few things which Microsoft don’t document well and which are painful.

  • Migration is painful. If you have an existing SharePoint site, moving it to Office 365 is a lot less nice than you’d like. Microsoft don’t provide their own tools to do this, there are external tools which we used, which help, but it takes a long time and the migration isn’t perfect. We still have a lot of URLs within our wiki which point to documents on our old SharePoint site which we have to fix laboriously.
  • You are limited in the number of email recipients you can send to. Although more an Exchange feature than a SharePoint one, there is a limit to the number of email recipients that you can send from a single mailbox; this is 500 a day on the more basic Office 365 packages and 1500 a day for enterprises. So if you want to make an announcement or send out a newsletter, you are limited to the number of people you can send it to. [Update Nov 8th: one useful workaround to this is that each distribution group in the group address list counts as just a single recipient.]
  • Lists, libraries and wikis with more than 5,000 entries don’t seem to work properly. In theory, SharePoint Online can have millions of entries in a list or library, but in practice in the current release, if you have more than 5,000 you don’t seem to be able to use the library (e.g. cannot set permissions). For instance, we have a wiki library which has close to 5,000 pages and we are having to manage it and delete old pages to ensure we don’t step over the limit. Not a problem for small users, but a problem if you grow. [Update Nov 8th: if you split your library into folders, you can have libraries with more than 5,000 documents, but there is an issue that managing permissions directly in the UI seems blocked once you exceed the 5,000 limit.]List view threshold
  • You can’t open PDFs, you have to download them before opening. Apparently due to security concerns, if you have PDFs that you want people to open on your site, they can’t click and open them directly, you have to save them on your local computer first and then view, you get a dialog like the below:

Do you want to save the PDF?

Like many others, we use PDF files extensively and this is a pain.  I can’t believe it’ll be long before Microsoft change this … here’s hoping anyway.

One of the great things about a software service like Office 365 is that it can be updated at the server end and I’m sure we’ll see improvements from service updates.

If you currently run SharePoint On Premise and don’t have a lot of third party web parts, then moving to SharePoint Online seems very viable, but prepare for some effort to do the migration. If you’re looking to run a learning project online, then take a look at Office 365, particularly with assessments, it may be a viable route to set up an effective site quickly.

Feel free to comment below if you have any corrections or your own comments on SharePoint Online.

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23 Responses to SharePoint in Office 365: the Good, the Bad, the Brilliant and the Ugly

  1. Steve says:

    Interesting article. Agree with most of it. For me, the Ugly isn’t that big of a deal – we had a partner do the migration for us, and the rest of that list aren’t a big deal.

    The Ugly for me is being a Mac user, Microsoft has made no way for me to use Lync. I bought Office 2011 last year which did not include Lync, and I have the E3 plan. Yet Lync is not available on the Office365 downloads page, nor is it included anywhere else. I have been told it is available through “Volume Licensing” but how does that help me? What is that, anyhow????

    I would argue that MS is practicing false advertising by advertising Lync as a benefit of Office 365, but not pointing out that if you’re on a Mac, your pretty much screwed for now.

    • Kevin Miller says:


      I hope you know now that Lync for MAC systems is available through O365? You simply donwload it from another site. In fact there was an update for it back in Oct.

  2. Steve says:

    The other “Ugly” is the inability to implement web parts like those from Bamboo. I’d like to add a Weather Web Part to our corporate intranet homepage, but can’t. There are also other web parts such as those for project management, etc. that won’t work either. To me, those are much larger problems that the “Uglies” listed herein. But that’s perhaps more for our situation than the author’s.

  3. John Gilham says:

    Great article…thank you!

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  6. Ann Kelly says:

    We are using Cloud2050 Email Sync and Importer ( to sync emails to our SharePonit lists and libraries hosted at Office 365. It works in real time and doesn’t require server configurations.

  7. Great article. We’re constantly looking for ways to improve the offering. E.g. raised the Recipient Rate Limit from 500 to 1,500 for the P1 plan. For a list of Service Updates see this wiki

  8. André says:

    Brilliant : the integration of Outlook web with the Nokia Lumia, changes on the contacts in your phone are automaticaly in sync with your Outlook. So is SP online connection with Office 365 super. Waiting to have Lync speak enabled

  9. You can view PDFs now in SharePoint Online. Updated as of February 2012.

  10. Himanshu Kumar says:

    I have listed down issues/alternatives and migration steps to migrate from SharePoint 2007 to Office 365-S E1 using native web services and managed CSOM in this post
    Hope this helps in migrations.

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  12. Daniel says:

    Since february you can open PDFs directly in Adobe Reader (v. 10.1.2)
    It’s not in the browser I know but at least it’s better than before.

  13. Paul Headey says:

    Use the Foxit reader too.. way faster than adobe and much more secure.

    Rumour has it that Microsoft use Foxit IFilters too as it indexes PDF’s 35 x faster than adobe Iflters. Great for OnPremise SharePoint too you can buy from their website.

  14. Adrian says:

    I am looking into sharepoint for developing a college project.
    Can someone tell me what versions of SP you get with 365 ie 2010? 2013? and is it sp foundation or sp server?

    • johnkleeman says:


      Someone else might be able to answer more fully, but my understanding is that Office 365 is currently similar to 2010 but will move to 2013. And the different editions of Office 365 SharePoint Online have different functionality to each other, but that it’s closer to SharePoint Server than Foundation. You can see a full list of the functionality on Microsoft’s website.


  15. Keith Rosenberg says:

    If you are and external user of a shared MSO 365 SharePoint site, your options for editing files using Office 2007 or prior, are quite limited. You simply cannot open a document in Office 2007 and save it back to the site. Microsoft apparently expects an organization to force non-employees and orgs to upgrade Office to the version required to take full advantage of the Shared SharePoint sites.

    • Nick Turner says:

      Enable your Office Web Apps in the site settings and it will edit the documents in your browser instead of the client.

  16. can you help me get past this one issue i am having as it relates to the ediscovery download manager credential screen for keeps popping up when trying to export results using sharepoint o365?

    trouble-shooting performed thus far – to no avail:
    Set up Internet options to allow download of .pst
    Download and install internet explorer 9
    Download and install .net 4.5 framework
    Perform the following in internet options tools
    • Select ToolsoptionsSecurity—Trusted SitesCustom Level
    enabled Run components not signed/signed with Authenticode
    • Set the security level to Medium-high,
    Add the server site to the Websites list in the Trusted sites zone

    And any o365 SharePoint related site

    Select Compatibility view setting
    Add and

    to remove some pwds from the vault
    Startcontrol panelCredential manager

    Expand anything that has

    Remove from Vault

  17. LukeInDC says:

    Here is another big Ugly: Sharepoint Online has a 260 character limit for the URL. That is so ridiculous its not even funny. It means I can’t segregate my Sharepoint site by logical things like (Which helps with security: Department – Client – Project ← Because by the time I get to the project name without abbreviations, I’m halfway to 260 characters. Especially since some departments like Service Delivery have sub-sections like Federal, Healthcare & Commercial. Which means I’m well into abbreviating things by the time I hit the project name. Between that and Sharepoint sync (aka Skydrive Pro) which often fails to sync files and fails regularly if check in/check out is used, our healthcare sector of Service Delivery moved to Google Docs for their syncing and Document management.

    • johnkleeman says:

      We also see the 260 character limit issue from time with long files, the solution for us was to abbreviate the departments / project names etc which means this hasn’t been a practical problem. Sync seems to work for us to Outlook.

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