Rumors about a Microsoft building an Office suite for iOS have been swirling for about a month now. Regardless of whether there’s any truth in these rumors or even what that product might look like, an iOS version of “real” Microsoft Office is a huge opportunity for both for Microsoft and IT departments.
To understand why, let’s look at the current options for accessing Office docs on tablets. (For the purpose of this article, the term “tablets” means dedicated tablet devices like iPad and Android tablets. We’re not talking about the laptops-with-hinged-touchscreens that Microsoft supports today.)
- Use a web-based office product
- Deliver the “real” Windows Office suite to a tablet as a remote hosted app from a virtual desktop or terminal server session
- Install a third-party device-native office app on the tablet.
- Do nothing
- Hope that Microsoft releases a genuine version of Office for non-Windows tablets (iOS & Android)
Let’s look at the pros and cons of each of these.
Web based office suites
There are a few web-based office suites in the market now, most notably Google Docs and Microsoft’s own Office 365.
Right now Google is well ahead of Microsoft. Accessing Google Docs from the Safari browser on an iPad leads to an iPad-specific version of the site, and creating and editing docs feels like a “native” app. (Of course Google Docs accessed from a real computer is a better document creation experience due to the keyboard and mouse, but Google Docs when accessed from a tablet is as good as any tablet app.)
Office 365, on the other hand, does not have a good experience when accessed from a tablet. There’s no mobile version of the web apps; instead users are presented with all the same pointing-device centric buttons.
Unfortunately neither of these web-based office suites works when the tablet is offline. (While Google Docs does have some basic offline functionality, it requires the Chrome browser, so no iPad support today.)
Remote hosted copies of “real” Office running on Windows
A lot of companies “solve” the “Office apps on tablets” problem by using desktop virtualization to deliver remote Office apps to tablets via a remote display protocol connecting back to a virtual desktop or terminal server session. In fact Citrix has spent a lot of money marketing this exact solution.
The problem is that the “real” version of Microsoft Office is designed to be used on a multitasking computer with a keyboard and precision pointing device (trackpad or mouse). Tablets don’t have either of those.
The other problem is that even if you hook up a bluetooth keyboard and use the touch interface of your tablet, real Microsoft Office was built with all the bells & whistles--the million features that 95% of the world never use. This is not needed on a tablet.
And then of course there’s the fact that this also doesn’t work offline. A big promise of tablets is that they are light and can be with you anywhere. If you’re going to go to all the trouble to have a tablet and an external keyboard and an external mouse and a table to use them on and an Internet connection--why not just buy a real laptop and run Office locally?
Use a third-party office suite for tablets
Touch-based device-native applications provide the best user experience for tablets. They have local caching, syncing, & offline capabilities, and they’re designed for the screen sizes, form factors, and multitouch interfaces of tablets.
And thanks to the Apple App Store and the Android Marketplace, they’re really easy for users to buy, install, and use!
Unfortunately if a user goes to the Apple App Store and searches for [Microsoft Office], they won’t find iOS versions of Excel & Word. Instead they’ll find other apps like Apple’s Pages, Documents-to-Go, and Quickoffice--all apps made by companies other than Microsoft.
Of course this only applies to non-Microsoft tablet OSes. If everybody happened to be using Windows Phone 7 devices, then Office Mobile would provide users with the device-native experience they need, and IT would be happy, knowing that trusted Office apps were being used with the secure corporate back-end. Of course the catch is the “if everybody happened to be using Windows Phone” part. The Windows phone market share is in the 2-3% range for 2011. So if keeping Office on Windows Phone only is Microsoft’s grand plan to get people to Windows, well, it’s time for Plan B!
So users are left with the non-Microsoft apps to create and open Microsoft Office docs on their tablets. The problem with that is that once users break out of the corporate environment, it’s hard to get them back in. Users might be perfectly content storing everything in SharePoint until they get that slick Apple Pages app for iPad. “Hey, what’s this? Pages only stores my docs in this ‘iCloud’ thing? Well, whatever. FUIT!”
Another option is to simply do nothing. But this will just lead to users finding their own apps with who-knows-what security and storage location.
Hope for Microsoft to create a real Office iOS suite
Microsoft makes a lot of money selling Office for Mac. If they want to protect their Office franchise, as well as give corporations a reason to keep using SharePoint / Windows / etc. in the back office, then it makes sense to have a fully integrated client. Heck, they could even make it free for users who already have SharePoint licenses. (Which would both promote SharePoint use and deprive Apple of any profit from Microsoft’s iOS app sales... Well, besides the fact that more people would run out and buy iPads because they can now run Office.)
Does the Windows 8 “Metro” UI play into this?
Some have suggested that Microsoft is saving a real tablet version of Office for Windows 8 with the Metro UI. If that’s the case, man, good luck with that! One of the things that makes Android and iOS tablets great is the fact that they don’t run an entire huge/bloated/slow desktop OS. So Windows 8 ARM with Metro, yeah, it’s running on ARM, and yeah, it has an app store, and yeah, its apps will be touch-native. But man.. it’s still Windows! It still has a registry and DLLs and user profiles and licensing and...... Windows 8 ARM with Metro is zero threat to iPads, and limiting Office to it is only going to cause more people to look for alternatives to Office.
So in the meantime (when’s Windows 8 coming out again?), Microsoft needs to release a version of its core Office products for iOS and Android tablets. They can extend the reach of their strong product, users could have better experiences, and corporate IT could securely enable iPad use, instead of driving users to questionable third-party solutions.