SharePoint Alternative: Igloo

It wasn’t all that long ago that Googling “SharePoint Alternatives” didn’t yield many results. Sure, you’d get listings like Dropbox, but SharePoint is so multifaceted that saying Dropbox is an alternative is like saying a baseball is the same as an apple – similar shape, but totally different purposes.

Fortunately, a lot of companies have made the jump into direct competition with SharePoint, offering not only file-sharing, but blogging, wikis, shared calendaring, and the ever-present social networking as well. This is great news not only for people looking for alternatives to SharePoint, but also to SharePoint itself, who I firmly believe could use a little more competition to help spur innovation and healthy competition – after all, “No Pressure, No Diamonds”. SharePoint proponents often bash the alternatives out there, but I never understood this mentality; the best tool for the job is the one that you’ll use the best, not the one someone else says is the best. Below is my take on Igloo, but ultimately you’re going to have to decide for yourself if it’s the right tool for the job you have in mind.

The Skinny On Igloo

Service: Cloud only.

Cost: Free for teams up to 10 people, $12/ user/ month after that.

Igloo is making some impressive inroads against SharePoint, and has won such customers such as Harry Winston, Mobilicity, Deloitte, The Keg, and The Co-Operators Insurance. Interestingly, it also counts several healthcare organizations in its roster of clients as well: Ontario Health Quality Council, Mental Health Commission of Canada and the American Psychological Association; these are interesting considering how shy healthcare IT can be towards cloud-based services.

Built by the Canadian company of the same name, Igloo offers a collaboration solution separated into Apps. Each app represents a discrete function that integrates with other Igloo apps to produce the entire Igloo system. The default apps are: Blogs, Calendars, Files, Forums, Microblogs (ie: Twitter/ Status updates), Wiki, Rooms (like sub-Igloos), Pages, and People. You can choose to leave the default apps as-is, or you can rename, remove, or add them as the needs of your team evolve; Igloo offers quite a bit of flexibility without the need to delve into code or obscure configuration screens.

Igloo App Menu
Igloo App Menu

 

The Good

Design

From the get-go, it’s apparent Igloo has put a lot of time and effort into getting a slick and accessible design in place. The application itself looks great: modern and unobtrusive, it knows you’re here to do work and for the most part stays out of your way. The thing I like about Igloo is they seem to understand how to provide a default structure and design that lets small to medium teams get started entering and sharing information early and easily. Many collaboration applications give you a blank canvas, which can be great, but also daunting from a “Where do I even start?” perspective.

Get A Room Already

Igloo Rooms allow for a kind of sub-igloo for a particular team or project, giving that team their own forums, blogs, wikis, etc. that is separate from the larger company. The Room’s home page displays a stream of microblog updates by the team/ project members, making it quick and easy to stay abridged of what others are doing. Project Rooms also incorporate milestones for a project planning lite experience; this isn’t full-on Microsoft Project, this is bare bones project management (and for some that’s enough). On the whole, Rooms appear to be a more effective implementation of what SharePoint calls “Team Sites”, which are the mainstay of many SharePoint deployments.

Mobile

The Igloo mobile app (available for Android and iOS) while not great, is certainly ahead of a lot of the clunky 3rd party SharePoint apps available out there. The app itself exposes all of the er, uh, apps available in your Igloo in a clean and well designed interface. Navigating through your igloo and finding content is straightforward and easy, as everything is already structured and well categorized in the various apps available.

Unfortunately, the mobile app is really about consuming content already available from your Igloo, and not so much about producing content on your mobile device. At the time of writing I could not find a way to add a file to a file app or edit a wiki or blog entry. The only means of content creation is to create a microblog post, which is fine for status updates, but if a client sends me an email with an attachment and I’m on mobile, it would be great to have a way to actually share that file in the igloo without having to wait to get back to my office.

Apps in the Igloo App - Appception?
Apps in the Igloo App – Appception?

The Bad

Search

When I first tried Igloo, I could not get the search to work – at all. Creating an article and subsequently searching for it yielded no results. When I tried it again some time later, search did find the articles and it was accurate, leading me to believe that much like SharePoint, the search indexer executes on a schedule, so expect to wait a while for changes to be reflected; in some cases, it was upwards of 30 minutes to an hour for my changes to be shown, and this is just too long. Search is the cornerstone of any collaborative application, and Igloo’s weakness here is a significant one.

No Wiki Markdown

Another annoyance is that there does not appear to be any kind of wiki markdown, meaning new pages and links must be made by clicking through the UI, rather than inserting a few characters (ie: [[This would be a link to another page]]). For someone that spends a lot of time in wikis, this was a big disappointment, and it means my time gets wasted clicking around instead of producing content.

Pimples

Igloo WYSIWYG Editor
Edit Like It’s 2001

Despite the excellent design and structure, there are some real oddities to be found in the UI: The biggest one being that the WYSIWYG editor looks like an old stock MCE Editor. Cramped button spacing and default icons are a stark contrast to the super-clean and modern UI. It’s a small blemish, but one that really stands out in the polished look Igloo has cultivated.

Igloos, Eh

Bob and Doug McKenzie
From the live webcam feed in my office

Finally, and this is a regional gripe – I cannot tell my American colleagues that “the file’s in  Igloo”. Can’t do it. Nope. As a Canadian, saying this phrase is tantamount to wearing a sou’wester while holding a Tim’s in one hand and a picture of the Queen in the other and saying “Aboot that file..” (FYI we don’t actually say ‘aboot’). I get what Igloo is trying to do with the name, but as a Canadian, the chuckles I get from Americans even mentioning the word ‘igloo’ are a bit much. Maybe they could have called it Beaver Lodge, or Much Ado Aboot Files (no – wait, those are terrible ideas, Nik).

Would this prevent me from buying Igloo? Absolutely not. But as a Canadian I can’t NOT make an igloo joke when given the chance, right?

Bottom Line

  • Igloo is great software, and being free for 10 people or less makes it a perfect option for small teams.
  • The design is stellar and easy to use, save for a few small gripes about the WYSIWYG editor.
  • Mobile App is ok, but room for improvement
  • Search issues I encountered were frustrating, and it would be great to see results showing up faster than 30+ minutes after being added.
  • No wiki markdown is a hard pill to swallow for me, and should be for anyone who spends a lot of time producing and organizing wiki content

 

Why IT Can’t Own SharePoint (And Why Business Users Can’t Either)

Inside just about every organization that uses SharePoint, there’s a quietly seething war happening. No, it’s not between you and the person that keeps stealing your food from the fridge – but honestly, who does that?

It’s between the SharePoint IT crowd and the business end users.

Both sides think the other abuses SharePoint and makes it unusable, and both sides think that the other should just shove off and let the people who know what they’re doing handle the situation. This kind of conflict happens most often when strong governance isn’t in place before, during, and after SharePoint is deployed – since governance is almost always either totally undeveloped or underdeveloped, the battle between IT and users is a common one.

So What’s The Problem?

There are two fundamental approaches to SharePoint:

Scenario 1: SharePoint Owned by IT

IT is told to deploy SharePoint to allow people to collaborate, communicate, and various other ate’s. Usually this means a server admin installs SharePoint, gives the business user(s) limited access (usually Contribute), and considers the service request fulfilled. Business users are given the URL, told how to login and left to their own devices. IT favours this approach, as they tend to dislike relinquishing control of their infrastructure and resources to non-IT personnel. Business users tend to hate this approach, as they must now must submit tickets to IT for just about everything you can do in SharePoint: manage permissions, create lists and libraries, etc.

The conflict between IT and business here comes from business feeling like they’re constantly on a leash that IT holds. Business wants to do things right now and doesn’t have time to wait on IT to get what they need done, and they don’t want to be subjected to IT decisions such as server moves, downtimes, etc.

Scenario 2: SharePoint Owned by Business users

Usually this scenario happens when a business user catches wind of SharePoint at a conference, trade show, or meeting with a colleague, and and it’s love at first site (pun intended). Someone within business with some tech savvy and initiative fires up a server, installs SharePoint, and lets the business user community go at it. Business users really love this approach, as they now have a powerful technology stack under their complete control, which they can (in theory at least) make jump through the hoops they need jumping through. IT, on the other hand, is fuming mad, because they definitely do not like being kept in the dark when it comes to someone deploying servers in their environment, especially when something blows up a year later and are told that they have to fix it.

In this scenario, the friction comes from IT feeling left out of the decision making process and told they need to clean up when something business has chosen to do has blown up. Most often IT will propose bringing the server ‘into the fold’ to which business users will dismiss outright and fight tooth and nail to keep their toys in their backyard. IT becomes frustrated because they become a cleanup crew, but business enjoys it because they get all the benefit, and risk is absorbed by IT.

Power Up To 11

SharePoint doesn't do 10.
SharePoint doesn’t do 10.

At it’s core, this whole situation is a power struggle. In Scenario 1, IT feels empowered but business feels powerless. In scenario 2, it’s just the opposite. Neither approach truly works, because it creates a lopsided power dynamic that always leaves one side mad, frustrated, and wanting to hit the “ABORT” button on the whole thing.

The only solution is to establish a hybrid model – a power sharing approach that involves both groups to empower each other.

The Fix: IT Enables, Business Executes

Coffee Talk

The most first step is to have IT and business stakeholders sit at the same table, ideally as a part of a larger governance committee. The various stakeholders from both sides need to flesh out the divisions of responsibility and the expectations they have for each other.

In essence, both sides need to communicate with each other and on a regular and permanent basis. It doesn’t work to have one meeting before kickoff, and it doesn’t work to do it sporadically when people feel like it (and for God’s sake don’t do it on a Friday afternoon). Depending on your level of use of SharePoint, this could mean a bi-weekly or monthly meeting between IT and business to keep each other informed and head off issues and conflict before it even happens.

A great tool baked right into SharePoint to facilitate this kind of integration between IT and busines are Blogs. I’ve found creating a blog where technical and non-technical stakeholders can post updates, discuss issues and keep each other informed is invaluable.

Render Unto Caesar

Caesars camera by John Kratz, on Flickr
Seriously, don’t touch his camera, Caesar gets mad.
Photo: John Kratz on Flickr

After the initial discussions above, you should start to have a pretty clear understanding of where each of the responsibilities lay.

Let’s be honest here: business users do NOT want to have to deal with server health, backups, patches, combing through the ULS logs troubleshooting, etc. Nor should they! This is IT’s bread and butter. Business users should be focusing on business: how to improve, how to be more efficient, how to use the tools.

Similarly, IT should not have to be contacted every time permissions have to change or a list needs to be created – this is the day to day business side, and frankly IT has better things to do with their time. Therefore, business users must be trained and trusted to take on all of the day to day responsibilities. Training is critical for both sides, because the more training they each have, the more they can focus on getting work done and the less they have to ask the other side to solve their problems with SharePoint.

In my mind, the business owner of SharePoint should be able to perform all of the operations available to them up to the Site Collection Administrator level; everything from managing permissions to workflows and sandboxed solutions. IT, on the other hand, should have the knowledge and ability to proactively address issues before they become problems, and work with business to quickly address problems.

Magna Carta

What we’re talking about above, really, is governance. Stakeholders coming together to define and work together to determine the who, what, when, where and why of SharePoint as a tool. Write down the outcomes from these discussions. Share what you’ve written down with the group. This is how you can start to develop a framework for governance that can be built on over time. Governance doesn’t have to be a giant, monolithic project (but you do have to address it at some point), you can start small and iterate to a larger goal.

Wrap Up

SharePoint is a unique bird in that it will starve if one group keeps a strangle-hold, but it tends to thrive when multiple groups buy into the technology and work together to develop it into a success. IT and business aren’t mutually exclusive, they’re part of the same workplace ecosystem, and as such, what’s good for one side is good for the other. IT and business can work together, and indeed they must work together if SharePoint is to be a cause for celebration rather than a source of conflict.