According to a note (MC92090) published through the Office 365 Admin Center on January 31, 2017, beginning in March 2017, SharePoint site owners will no longer be able to create new site mailboxes. Existing site mailboxes will function until they are replaced by something else. The news was expected, but it poses some challenges for tenants who have deployed site mailboxes to serve purposes like contract management that involve a mixture of email communication and document management.
A site mailbox allows users to share email information along with pointers (“stubs”) to files held in a document library. Administrators create a site mailbox by adding the mailbox app to a site, which causes SharePoint to create a new Exchange mailbox. Users can then create and send messages from the site mailbox or move items from their mailboxes to the site mailbox to share with other members of the site. Figure 1 shows how Outlook presents the stubs for documents stored in a SharePoint document library associated with a site mailbox.
Customers never embraced the concept of site mailboxes and their usage was low, even within Office 365 where Microsoft took care of the work required to integrate SharePoint and Exchange. The advent of Office 365 Groups and the continued popularity of shared mailboxes provided customers with sufficient means to share information. The long-term direction is to replace site mailboxes with Groups, and Microsoft expects to provide a migration tool in late 2017.
Two major features distinguish site mailboxes from Office 365 Groups. First, the integration between site mailboxes and Outlook clients functions more like a shared mailbox. For instance, users can drag and drop items from their personal mailbox or a shared mailbox into the site mailbox. Unlike the conversations stored in group mailboxes, Exchange treats items stored in the site mailbox as messages and retain all the characteristics of the messages.
Second, site mailboxes use pointers to represent files. The pointers hold some attributes, such as the author, file size, document name, and so on, and a synchronization process keeps the pointers updated. Office 365 Groups always defer to the browser interfere when users want to open files in the group document library.
The question for those using site mailboxes is how to proceed. They can wait until Microsoft delivers the migration tool to move existing site mailboxes to Office 365 Groups, but what should they do to satisfy new user needs after March 2017? The options are to use:
The answer will be different depending on the business needs. Shared mailboxes are best if the functionality required is email-centric, like the need to provide a single repository for a team to handle collective tasks. Dedicated folders, such as one for each customer or project, can hold any documents related to the tasks.
Office 365 Groups are best when the need is more document-centric. For example, a team managing contracts on behalf of a company is likely to need some of the document management capabilities found in document libraries, like check-in/check-out. In these circumstance, an Office 365 group is the best option.
Interestingly, although Outlook desktop does not allow you to drag and drop (or copy) items from personal mailboxes to a group mailbox, OWA is perfectly happy to accommodate this functionality. To do this, you add the group mailbox to OWA as a shared folder, which is OWA-speak for a shared mailbox. Here’s how:
Figure 2: Adding a group mailbox as an OWA shared folder (image credit: Tony Redmond)
It is possible that this access is because OWA treats group mailboxes in the same way as shared mailboxes. The same technique does not work with Outlook desktop because you cannot add group mailboxes to an Outlook profile in the same way as you can add a shared mailbox.
Microsoft offers many collaboration methods within Office 365 – Groups, Teams, Yammer, shared mailboxes, and plain-old email. It is reasonable to expect that they should whittle down the less successful methods, which is exactly what has happened with site mailboxes. Transitions are painful for users and tenant administrators alike. At least there are some places to go!
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