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Office For iOS? – Meh……. The ‘Book Mystique

First, let me acknowledge that Microsoft Office for iPad is an unqualified hit in terms of user interest. In the first week following Microsoft blogger John Case’s officially dropping the word (pun intended) on March 27 that Office for iOS — long-anticipated by many — was finally a reality, Microsoft’s free (sort of) Word, Excel, and PowerPoint Office apps were the top three free app downloads in the App Store, and according to the company, those three apps plus Microsoft OneNote for iPad had accounted for over 12 million downloads.

In his introductory blog, Mr. Case observed that over a billion people worldwide use Microsoft’s Office productivity suite, and now with the release of Office for iPad, that can include going on 200 million iPad users — if they so desire. Personally,a big ho-hum. I’ll be giving it a pass, and I expect many other iPad users will as well, but it’s now been confirmed that substantial pent-up demand had built up for an iPad version of Office, and that Microsoft without doubt shot itself in the foot by refusing to release one until now, probably foregoing $millions of profit.

The Mac Observer’s John Martellaro comments that there are many reasons underlying Office for iPad’s rapid ascent, including dissatisfaction with Apple’s own iWork productivity suite, plain old curiosity, and a heretofore frustrated desire to dig in and get some real work done on the iPad. Martellaro congratulates Microsoft for their highly-successsful launch of the venerable Office suite’s iPAd version, but with the caveat that it remains to be seen how long these productivity apps can hold on to spots #1,2,3 and 4 once the first flush of pent-up demand is filled and the novelty wears off.

iMore’s Richard Devine reports that the site polled readers asking whether or not they would be downloading Office for iPad, and results were strongly weighted to a ‘no’ response with nearly half of respondents saying they won’t be bothering with it, a quarter saying they were still undecided, and only just over a quarter affirming definite ‘yes,’ — so among what would concededly be an Apple-oriented user cohort, Office is not proving so popular.

Devine graciously acknowledges that Office for iPad is good. Indeed “really, really good,” arriving too late to make the impact might have had it been re-released a year or two ago, but at least when it did arrive it arrived in style. However, he suggests, and I concur that evidently this category of apps is not as important as it once was, or maybe it’s just that Apple’s free iWork productivity suite actually is enough (or in many cases more than enough) for most iPad users.

I’ve been giving Office a pass on the Mac for about 20 years now, since beginning when Microsoft Word 6 was foisted on Mac users, displacing Word 5.1, which was the class of the word processor field then by a substantial margin.

I was a big fan of Word 5.1, which I used intensively as my primary word-crunching tool during my early years on the Mac. I still think it was a superb piece of software, and even two decades later it remains the standard by which I judge word processor software.

Word 6, on the other hand, should’ve been called “Word for Windows on The Mac,” — a too-literal attempt to ram the Windows way of doing things down Mac users’ throats and delivering mediocre performance. Later versions of Word restored some of the traditional Mac-like goodness, but for me the string had been broken. I had moved on, at first provisionally, reasoning that I would buy a newer version of Word when I needed it, but I never did. Word 5.1 continued to work well for the already diminishing requirement for Word file compatibility to access documents created by others in Word formats and my own sizable accretion of archived Word 5.1 files was covered. By the time Word 5.1 became obsolete for opening Word file attachments and such, I had found plenty of alternatives, including free ones, that could perform those functions. For example, Apple’s Text Edit app, which comes bundled with OS X and is on every Mac, does a decent job of opening and saving basic MS Word-format documents, and now Apple’s full-zoot iWorks productivity suite, which has much more powerful Office file compatibility, is also bundled for free with every new Mac and iOS device.

Note that I’m concentrating my observations on Microsoft Word here, making few observations regarding the other application modules in the Office suite. Frankly, that’s because I only have a limited frame of reference to evaluate the other main Office components: Excel and PowerPoint, and the rest of the suite. I’ve occasionally used Excel and PowerPoint over the years, but mostly only to read or view documents saved in those formats.

In short, I moved on from Word long ago. I haven’t routinely hard-copy printed formatted word processor files for years, having switched largely to lean, light, and speedy text editors for the bulk of my word-crunching needs in the late ’90s and essentially never looked back. In recent years, my text editor focus has been validated by the fact that most iOS text apps are happiest with plain text, relatively few able open and save anything else.

When I do need full word processor power, I usually switch to Open Source Libre Office, my favorite of the several alternative productivity suites for OS X. I’ll probably use Pages as well since it came loaded up on my new MacBook Air, and will be on my next iPad as well. Consequently, Office for iPad, such as it is, is largely irrelevant for me.

Different strokes. I appreciate that for iPad users obliged to work in Office-centric environments, Office for iPad is exciting news. Microsoft’s Case says the apps’ developers thought a lot about what people want to do when they’re on their tablet, and that they reimagined Office on the iPad that would still retain what fans of the apps love about Office. The apps were created from the ground up for iPad, featuring large touch areas on the Ribbon and overlay menus making it simple to create, edit and format documents using only touch. Users can resize and rotate objects like pictures with touch-friendly handles, and when you hold and move objects, text flows smoothly around them. No keyboard and mouse required. iPad features like voice dictation to draft a Word document or AirPlay to project a presentation wirelessly on a TV screen are also supported. Case also notes that Microsoft has now made Office Mobile for iPhone and Android phones available for free (and reportedly Office Mobile for iPhone works fine on an iPad as well).

Here’s the thing. Supposedly “free” Office for iPad comes with a catch, namely that it’s essentially just a document viewer, you won’t be able to edit and create new documents with the iPad apps unless you pony up for a Microsoft Office 365 subscription. And Office 365 will cost you. A lot — like US$99.99 a year, or US$9.99 a month. If you’re an enterprise or professional iPad user, you may find that having increased Office compatibility is worth the heavy tariff, and you can probably write it off as a business expense, but it makes little sense with so many excellent inexpensive or free alternatives available for non-business/non-institutional users with no compelling need for full format fidelity Office compatibility, such as being obliged to share files with folks who are joined at the hip to Office, to pay that much. For the rest of us, Apple’s iWork apps, the iPad versions of which offer near-desktop levels of editing ability, and can import and export Microsoft Office formatted documents.

As Appleinsider’s Daniel Eran Dilger observed in a recent commentary, Microsoft Office remained a $500 commercial software suite right up until Apple released iWork selling for substantially less, and a variety of web-oriented productivity suites such as Google Docs appeared, observing that with competition restored, it will be very hard for Microsoft to jack the price of its software back up into the stratosphere.

You can try out the full Office for iPad editing and creation experience with no up-front cash commitment by signing up for a free 30 day Office 365 trial at http://www.office.com/try. If you do decide subscribe to Office 365, the iPad Office apps make it easy to collaborate. You can share your content with others via to Microsoft’s OneDrive, OneDrive for Business, and SharePoint Cloud services (the new Office 365 Personal will also qualify when it becomes available later this spring) and work simultaneously with multiple coauthors on the same document or presentation. And even if you’re away from an Internet connection for a while, you’ll still be able to work on the documents you’ve recently used on the iPad.

The reality is that Microsoft needs the iPad more than most iPad users need Office. Reportedly, Microsoft has theoretically been forfeiting some $2.5 billion a year in revenues by not releasing an Office version for iPad. I’m skeptical that there’s really that much pent-up demand for Office among iPad users, who have been getting along quite well without Office for the most part. One of the sticking points holding back Microsoft from releasing an iPad version of Office was presumed resistance to paying Apple its 30 percent App Store listing commission, but reportedly, Redmond is now gritting its teeth and doing so. I just don’t anticipate a stampede of iPad users going the stiff monthly subscription route with Office 365.

This is Microsoft’s existential dilemma. The days when businesses, and particularly home users were amenable to paying substantial licensing or subscription fees for software applications are over, and Microsoft is floundering in its attempts to keep the party going, while Apple is making boatloads of money by making it’s software free or very affordable, selling premium price (and premium quality) hardware, and innovations like iTunes and the App stores.

As for the Office for iPad apps functionally, WinSupersite’s Paul Thurrot, who is Windows-centric but commendably objective in commenting on Apple products notes that one of Office for iPad’s limitations isn’t Office, but iOS 7 which still lacks basic productivity features like the ability to run at least two apps side-by-side.

However, Thurrot found that the Office for iPad apps themselves are pretty powerful. He tried downloading his 575 page “Windows 8.1 Field Guide” Word document, and reports that the performance reading and editing the document was impressive and the fidelity of the document was perfect — everything formatted correctly, including images, validating Microsoft’s claim that documents look as good on the iPad as they do on a PC or Mac. He observes that he could actually write a book on the iPad with Word if he wanted to.

Thurrot further notes that in his opinion Microsoft should have released Office for iPad a year ago, but better late than never, and at least it’s not happening in a “half-assed way,” being a true full-featured Office suite that should impress iPad users because it respects the device.

It’s still not for me, but well said.

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