Co-authoring: It’s a Date

Matt Wade

by Matt Wade on 5/13/2016

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Date Revised:

Applies to:
co-authoring, Excel, Office Web Apps, SharePoint Online, track changes, versioning, word

Summary: Co-authoring has been around for a while but many people don't understand how it works between online and offline versions of Office products, and it can be more confusing when you add SharePoint versioning and Track Changes into the mix. This article shows how co-authoring works and what to expect, and offers insight into how you can get Track Changes to work for a Word Online document—it just isn't obvious.

Ever been cursed with this pop-up?

On a Friday afternoon, right before close of business, when you need to get your TPS Report submitted to upper management, this can be the most horrifying message a computer can send you.

(Well, maybe just after the newly designed blue screen of death.)

And, oh joy, Word gives you three options: 1) save a local copy of what's likely an outdated file, 2) get a notification when the person gets back (after the weekend, amirite!?), or 3) give up all hope and press 'Cancel'.

I can't think of a better example of a lose-lose-lose situation.

So, why does this warning come up? Well, if you store a file—Word doc, Excel spreadsheet, PowerPoint presentation, etc.—in a shared drive or on older (or non-updated) versions of SharePoint, the system limits the number of editors to—you guessed it—one. (This is completely separate from the check in/out process in SharePoint, so don't mix them up.)

And that's the reason for this warning. It's a courtesy (admittedly, that may be an overly nice term) meant to tell you that the file's currently being worked on—or, more commonly in my experience: forgotten and never saved and closed—by someone else.

As if our lives aren't stressful enough, I suspect this pop-up puts thousands on the brink of heart attacks every day. Thanks, Microsoft.

The solution

Because it can be a real nightmare to deal with this situation, Microsoft has introduced a service that allows you to edit files concurrently with your colleagues. And they call it co-authoring.

Basically, co-authoring allows multiple users to simultaneously edit the same document from multiple PCs. For the record, I hate this name. Because it's totally misleading. But on we go.

If you're familiar with Google Docs, concurrent/simultaneous editing has been available for years. So, for many of us, this functionality was a breath of fresh air when it was finally introduced in SharePoint 2013 and Office 2013.

Note, everything in this post relates to SharePoint 2013, Office 2013, and Office 365 (including SharePoint Online). If you're looking for info on how Office or SharePoint 2010 or 2007 support co-authoring, go here and then look at the table in the section, “Co-authoring support for Office on each version of SharePoint.”

I strongly suggest you push your IT department to upgrade if you're still on these older versions of the software. And if you're in IT, what's the hold-up? Your users are waaaaaiting!

But how exactly does co-authoring work?

Hey, now that's a really good question. Because the answer is far from intuitive.

Big picture-wise, it's simple enough. Imagine you and your colleague have the same Word doc open. Word tells you that you're sharing the file with someone else. And you're both safely editing the file simultaneously. In some instances, you can see the edits occurring live in front of you. In other instances, you'll see your colleague’s changes once your application refreshes the content. If it's live, you see a little cursor with the name of the person you're working with.  Co-authoring works similarly for PowerPoint, OneNote, and, depending on the situation, Excel.

In actuality, it can be rather confusing, especially once you get into conflict resolution. And that's why some people are deathly afraid of co-authoring. They feel they've lost control; that the domino was tipped before they meant to. On the other hand, many others waited a long time for this feature to become available.

It's an interesting dichotomy of user preferences, to say the least.

Co-authoring works differently depending on how you're editing files. It depends whether you're using Office Online/Web Apps (within your browser) or the actual applications (as in, launching MS Word and opening a document). I'll refer to the latter option as the client app from now on.

It also depends on the app. Co-authoring doesn't really make sense in some Excel files, so Excel offers limited co-authoring support.

What co-authoring does

You and your colleague(s) can open a Word, Excel, PowerPoint, or OneNote file and edit it at the same time. Big-picture, it's pretty simple. The details, however, are not.

Knowing when you're co-authoring

Sometimes it's not the most obvious thing when you're editing a file concurrently with someone else. Office will tell you, but you have to keep your eyes peeled. It's way easier to tell if you happen to be on the same page, slide, or worksheet because you'll see visual confirmation of changes. Otherwise, you're dependent on little notifications elsewhere on the screen.

  • Using the client app (Office 2013):
  • Using Office Online/Web Apps:

When you see updates

  • Using the client app: Whenever you save the file, any changes made by someone else while you had the file open will become visible. Your changes will also be uploaded and become visible to others. In essence, save = update.
  • Using Office Online/Web Apps: Updates are almost live, if you're both editing through the browser. You'll note a colored cursor that will display your colleague's name. The color sticks to the user so you always know which changes are theirs and where they're at in the file. Basically, update = automatic.
  • When using both: If you're using Office Online and your colleague is using the client app, they will only see updates you've made once they save; likewise, you will only see their updates when they save. (Basically, saving acts as a sync mechanism between the client app and SharePoint.)

If you're editing with more than one colleague, anyone using Office Online will see instant updates made by other Office Online editors. Anyone using the client app will only see updates when they save, and the folks using Office Online will see those edits when they're uploaded with the "save" from the client app.

Dealing with conflict resolution

I'll cover this in a future post. It's a topic unto itself.

Limits of co-authoring

Check out our infographic covering the size and usage limits for SharePoint. It has some info on co-authoring limits.

How version history works

Version history is kind of tricky. If you have version history enabled on your document library—because, remember, version history is disabled by default in a new library in SharePoint 2013—you should see the following behavior.

  • Using the client app: A new version is created every time you save the document. Whether it's a major or minor version depends on the option(s) you or your site owner have chosen in the version history settings for that document library. In essence, save = version.
  • Using Office Online/Web Apps: Even though SharePoint automatically updates the file whenever you make a change when using Office Online—which is why there is no "save" button in Office Online/Web Apps—it doesn't automatically create a version whenever it saves. Microsoft claims new versions are created every 30 minutes after someone begins making changes to the file. However, actual usage proves this to be inaccurate. Sometimes versions are made every few minutes, and usually the editor that's "credited" with the version is the one who opened the file before anyone else jumped in. I have no idea why the tool acts differently than what their documentation says. But it definitely does.
    • In SharePoint Online (Office 365), you're stuck with that time interval (30 min, even if it is inaccurate); in SharePoint 2013 on-premises, your IT department can change this. (Source) So, unlike using the client app, save ≠ version.
    • But! You can force-create a version by checking the file out and checking it back in when you're done editing. Details are here.
Pro tip: you should brush up on how version history works, and what the differences between using major and minor drafts are.

Working with check in/out

Co-authoring and check in/out are mutually exclusive concepts. That said, you can co-author on a file that lives in a library where check in/out is enabled. But...

  • If "Require Check Out" is enabled on your document library, co-authoring is not available. (Source)
  • If check in/out is enabled (but not required), co-authoring can only occur when files are checked in. (Source)

I strongly advise not using check in/out if you want to use co-authoring. It just doesn't make much sense to use both.

Excel and co-authoring

Excel doesn't have the best relationship with co-authoring. In fact, in my experience, Excel doesn't have the best relationship with SharePoint in general. This is a topic of its own, so I'll publish a separate post on this topic in the future.

For best results, use Office Online

Seriously. If you want to see changes occurring live, or just-about-live, you need to be editing the file in the browser. But, there's a downside. A good amount of the functionality that you expect in the Office applications isn't supported in Office Online.

Most notably, Track Changes is missing from Word Online; well, sort of. It does work in Word Online, but only if you’ve toggled Track Changes on in the client app first, then save your document and then open it in Word Online. You cannot toggle Track Changes on and off in Word Online, which blows my mind because it's kind of the most fundamental of collaborative tools. If Track Changes is on and you’re using Word Online, you won’t see the normal track changes that you expect, and it may not be obvious until you save the document and open it again in the client app, where you should see the changes tracked.

Additionally, unless you're working on a simple table in Excel, you'll likely not want to use Excel Online: connections between worksheets and macros are just two examples of functionality that will not work in Excel Online (in fact, you get an error when opening these types of files). So while you may be able to see live edits being made, you're going to be disappointed in every other way.

You can use the client applications, but the updates are delayed. At the rate that I save my files (not often enough), you could have written half of a book and I wouldn't know it until I hit 'Save'. Call me a bad user. But that's a minor issue.

It really depends on the situation. Pros and cons to both.

You can view Matt's original version of this article, here: Plus, check out Matt's other great articles for the SharePoint user community.

Topic: Business Productivity

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