All elements including SharePoint are built for online and offline use.
A common misconception when looking at cloud-based solutions such as Office 365 is that you need to be always connected to the internet in order to access your data. This is quite inaccurate as Office 365 is really about bringing the best-of-breed offline applications to an online world.
In this article I’ll mainly focus on SharePoint Online as that is the product that attracts most of of the misunderstanding.
To briefly address the other elements of the Office 365 suite:
Exchange Online works offline beautifully with the email client Outlook as it is by default in cached mode. This means you are always acting as if offline and simply synchronising your mailbox when emails change or arrive.
Lync Online has no requirement for offline access as it’s all about communicating with other people in real time – necessitating the requirement that you are actually online at the same time as the other people.
To be even more specific, I’ll only talk here about accessing SharePoint Online while offline using a Windows PC as I’ll write separately about access with iPads and Macs.
One of the under-utilised features of SharePoint Online is the ability to synchronise with Outlook. This feature is often limited to contacts, calendar or tasks as these features are common to both SharePoint and Outlook. However, Outlook can also synchronise libraries as well, giving you access to documents and other files within the Outlook interface.
You set this up in exactly the same way as contact/calendar/task lists – by simply selecting the Library tab in the ribbon and selecting Connect to Outlook.
The other method for accessing files offline (not lists) is to use Microsoft SharePoint Workspace 2010. This product replaces Microsoft Office Groove 2007. SharePoint Workspace 2010 is a component of the Microsoft Office Professional Plus 2010 suite which you can either purchase via volume licence or get as part of the Office 365 E3 subscription.
SharePoint Workspace allows you to synchronise multiple libraries while also bringing across the enhanced SharePoint experience including metadata, versioning, check in/out and others.
While working offline it’s great for accessing content and making modifications which are then synchronised back to SharePoint Online as soon as you get internet connectivity again.
SharePoint Workspace doesn’t have to be used when offline only. I use it myself for quick access to regularly used SharePoint content to save me navigating through the web interface.
Loryan Strant is a Microsoft Office 365 MVP (Most Valuable Professional). Follow him on Twitter @TheCloudMouth.