Microsoft, Apple and the mixed blessing that is Office for iPad

March 6, 2013

Type the words ‘Office for iPad’ into Google and you’ll get almost 750,000 hits. There’ll be suggestions for ‘Office for iPad free’ and ‘Office for iPad release date’ plus some images that look pretty real too.

And yet for all of this, Office for iPad remains a myth. It is something that you can’t get your hands on, unless perhaps you hold a very senior position at Microsoft.

There have been numerous rumors and sightings.

The Daily first reported to have spent time with the app (apparently for iPad and Android tablets) in February of last year and what followed since has been a flurry of reports on everything from the release date (estimated to be in the first half of 2013), pricing and distribution (said to be cloud-based using Office 365).

There have been reports that Microsoft has already developed the application, and that Apple and Microsoft are butting heads over app revenue fees.

The advantages of Microsoft putting Office on iPad are obvious. Most iPad owners have been crying out for feature-rich document editing since the inception of the first model almost three years ago. And for Microsoft, taking such a move would mean a lot of money. After all, Office is said to have represented $22.2 billion of the company's nearly $70 billion revenue in fiscal 2011.

And yet Microsoft is indecisive, but even that is understandable. The firm is eager to give the Surface family and Windows 8 as long as possible to see if they can sink or swim (evidence so far would indicate that both still need their armbands) and that effort would be significantly damaged by an Office app on a rival platform.

In battling with Apple, Microsoft has lost sight of other rivals

The trouble for Microsoft is that this whole ‘Will they, won’t they’ debate has gone on for too long.

The absence of Office from the market has given rise to other productivity apps like iWork, Quickoffice, CloudOn and Polaris Office. It could even be argued, as Ernie Smith for Associations Now does below, that Office is outdated in the age where cloud is king.

“In an era where Dropbox and Evernote are quickly gaining strength as organizational tools and we’re taking notes and organizing at our own pace, we’re working differently. There are new ways to write documents and new ways to be productive,” said Smith.

“And the mentality that Office is going to suddenly come in and standardize the way people work across the board … well, to be honest, it feels naïve.”

Add to that the fact that Office alternatives are not just out there — they are increasingly big players in their own right.

Apple’s own iWork suite, for instance, needs no introduction while start-ups CloudOn and QuickOffice (now owned by Google no less) have prospered in Microsoft's absence. Google’s own Google Drive is doing just fine too if Google’s own business case studies are anything to go by.

Most of these apps offer close to what to you would expect from an Office app, especially when it comes to editing tools and formatting.

In fact, as each day goes by it is harder to see how much more Office for iPad would offer and perhaps therein lies the problem for Microsoft.

Office for iPad is a compromise

That ‘problem’ is that Office for iPad is a compromise, a balancing act designed to boost Microsoft’s cash flow without derailing the firm's Surface tablets and Windows 8 OS.

For starters, there’s the release date. It could be argued that releasing the app a year ago or more would have helped squash iWork and other rivals, but it also could have helped Apple to the point where talk on iPads replacing laptops is more serious than it is today.  I am presuming that an earlier release date would have hardly been welcomed by Microsoft’s Windows 8 OEM vendors either.

Microsoft is also likely to face some kind of compromise with the price, especially if Apple does manage to grab a 30% cut of Office 365 subscriptions as reported.

You can buy Pages, Numbers and Keynote for $9.99 a piece, the Quickoffice package for $19.99 and get CloudOn for free.

Morgan Stanley recently estimated that $60 would be enough to entice two-thirds of iPad users to Office, but I am inclined to disagree with that figure. In my opinion, that price is a little steep given the above, and I also find the company’s assumption that two-thirds of iPad users would download the app to be hopeful at best.

The iPad does, after all, remain a consumption device for the majority.

But perhaps Microsoft’s biggest tweak will come in how it actually distributes the software, with the software giant seemingly leaning to the cloud-based model.  Reports have suggested that Microsoft will venture down this path, offering a free Office viewer app but only editing capabilities to those with Office 365 subscriptions.

“Good enough” should be the aim for Microsoft

All of the above hasn’t made it easy for Microsoft and the fact that the company has moved quickly to mop up incorrect reports would suggest the idea of pumping an enterprise solution to Apple doesn’t exactly sit comfortably.

Perhaps Microsoft’s best avenue is delivering an Office app that does the basics but goes little further, something Larry Seltzer touched upon in a recent posting for Information Week.

“It's possible to make a kind of Office for a tablet like the iPad, but it would be much less of a product than the *real* Office, which is a content creation suite and requires user interface devices — i.e. the keyboard and mouse — not included on an iPad."

Microsoft, for its part, must at least be decisive in its decision making. Because if it doesn’t, it will sooner find that a mobile Office isn’t just a fantasy – but an irrelevant one at that.


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