The SharePoint "Site Mailbox" - (Special) Character Assassination

Maybe you have seen it, the Site Mailbox functionality offered in SharePoint? Here is the description directly from Microsoft:

"A site mailbox is a central email and document sharing account that is accessed from a SharePoint site. Your team can use a site mailbox to collaborate on composing an important email message or gather relevant team-level email conversations. Your team may also find it helpful to share important documents securely by using a site mailbox."

Now I’m not saying that there aren’t any situations where the site mailbox could be a good fit. It has its own set of pros and cons that need to be evaluated at an individual level based on your specific needs. The problem, however, is that it seems as though the Microsoft Exchange Team decided to change the rules of the game without notice; thereby rendering the majority of the desired functionality useless for most companies.

The problem

The process for creating a site mailbox goes like this:

  • First things first, you begin by making a site collection. Party!

  • Once you have activated the site mailbox feature on the site, you will see a new link on the left hand side of the navigation.

alt

  • A user can then click this new link and be redirected to a new specific site mail page. When first entering the site, an event is triggered and sent to Exchange saying something along the lines of,

"Hey, create a mailbox for me here and when that is done let the site know what mailbox you have created by setting some properties on the web"

All good up to this point, but what happens next is where the problems begin...

Exchange has a service that handles the creation of the mailbox. This works by querying SharePoint for the title of the site from which the request came. The title field is something that both CAN and SHOULD be open for the use of special characters. It is just a string that is primarily used for display in the user interface.

Exchange then uses that title for the creation of the mailbox. Unfortunately, for some reason Exchange does not allow the use of special characters. Two specific symbols (that are not allowed) that came to mind after learning this were “??” and “!!”. The more pertinent problem is the omission of the Swedish vowels “Å” “Ä” and “Ö”. In previous versions, this Exchange service handled Swedish specific vowels by replacing them with regular characters. For example, Ö would be replaced with OE, so a site with the title “KÖpenhamn” would get a mailbox created called “KOEpenhamn .

While one might philosophize as to whether or not this is the most elegant solution from an end user’s perspective; at the end of the day they still got their mailbox.

A while back, our good friends at Microsoft decided to replace this logic, because their previous solution didn't work consistently and could cause issues in other areas. This would have been all well and good, except for the fact that instead of actually resolving the issue, Microsoft just decided to make it the end users problem to deal with. So now if we have a site with the same title, "Köpenhamn" and try to create a new Site Mailbox, the process will simply crash and return a rather ambiguous error "string syntax failed validation". This seems to be the case for all "special characters".

alt

So What could they have done differently?

Well, for starters, not using the Title field to create the Site Mailbox would have been a bit smarter, especially since that is beyond the scope of its intended purpose. Perhaps a more elegant solution would be to provide the user with an opportunity to enter an email address they would actually like, then use the site URL field to provide some sort of autosuggestion. At the very least a decent error message that provides some sort of context and some suggestions as to what steps can be taken to resolve it would be a huge improvement.

Now obviously we can make a suggestion to UserVoice, but that doesn't really do much for the companies using the Site Mailbox TODAY in production environments. Microsoft, you know that nobody loves you like I do...But when you make changes like this with no warning... Bad Microsoft, BAD! It makes it seem like nobody there cares or is responsible for this specific functionality. Worse still, it tells the users who loved this feature that they aren't a priority and that their use is "at their own risk".

What does Microsoft have to say about all this? It is always customary to let the plaintiff speak in their own defense. Their response was about as helpful as their error message; (spoiler alert : It wasn't helpful) "Feel free to send your feedback via the UserVoice channel". So essentially leave a comment then hope for the best.

My Advice

The best advice I can give at this point, is to just forget about this functionality (for now) and find another way to collaborate on your emails. The standard exchange Shared Mailboxes or the new Group/Team site connections (coming soon) can offer similar functionality in the meantime while Microsoft sorts this out on their own. Or you could look at buying or building an add-on that resolves your needs.