Office 365 is Microsoft's cloud-based solution for businesses looking for a full productivity suite. Subscribers get the desktop versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote and Outlook along with web apps to access and edit such files in the browser. (Rating: 3 out of 5)
So what about those who want to work from their 365 account on an iPad? In short, it is a disjointed experience. While Microsoft has several official apps that support Office 365, they vary in quality and how completely one can perform necessary tasks exclusively from an iPad.
Microsoft has an official SkyDrive Pro app for iPad (be sure to install the correct one and not the version for a consumer Microsoft account). It does a good job at providing a view of the files saved to your cloud storage. Editing them is more of a challenge. To edit a Word, Excel or PowerPoint file the app will take you to a tablet version of the Office Web Apps in Safari.
The upside to this system is you get the full feature set that Microsoft has built in to its web apps, which is rather impressive. For example, there are more capabilities for how you can format a Word document than what is possible with Google Docs. By focusing in the web version, Microsoft can build out these web apps without needing to go through the App Store approval process.
However, the experience on the iPad isn't great. Scrolling is not always consistent, especially in Excel. While icons within the ribbon have been sized to be touch-friendly, this makes it take up an excessive amount of screen real estate. You can get rid of it, but most formatting work requires use of the ribbon.
Also, you can not begin a new file from either the native app or touch-friendly web app. Switching to the PC view is a partial remedy for this. This lets you create files and access the full version of the desktop web apps.
However, when doing so they become rather slow and glitchy. Also, the cursor doesn't always line up with where you try to place it. PowerPoint can be especially laggy. It's nice in a pinch to be able to access the files this way, but there are way better alternatives for tablet productivity than what Office 365 offers on the iPad.
Along with the main SkyDrive app and its connected web apps, there are three other apps for iPad that work with Office 365:
Unfortunately connecting OneNote to my 365 account was an unpleasant experience. I was unable to sign in - instead I had to first sign in with my consumer Outlook.com account and later was able to connect with the enterprise version.
OneNote does a decent enough job, but the interface in some ways still feels like it has not evolved much beyond when OneNote was built for stylus-based tablet PCs. Unlike other note-taking apps there is no capability to draw; a major drawback for an app that is designed to be a digital notebook.
OWA for iPad
Microsoft’s Outlook Web App is a good choice if you prefer the company’s modern interface in comparison to the stock iPad mail app. It has good search capabilities and works well on an iOS 7-powered device. The app also gives access to one’s company calendar and contacts database. In fact it makes me wish Microsoft would build this out for Outlook.com accounts given its good looks and smooth operation.
(Also check the 10 best iPad apps for Office Productivity)
Lync 2013 for iPad
If your organization supports the Lync instant messaging tool, grabbing this app for your iPad is a wise choice. It supports video calls, allowing you to also join a call in progress or add in others. Also transfer calls to another phone number or contact.
The Office dilemma
While there are some good features to be found amongst the myriad Office 365 apps, the complete package feels incomplete. Microsoft has clearly chosen to make Office an optimal experience in its own ecosystem. The company has produced many ads touting the “full Office” available on Windows Phone and Windows 8 tablets.
However, most people don’t have a Windows Phone and even less have a Surface. Plenty of small businesses are deploying iPads; ones that have both an Office 365 account and iPad rollout are getting an inferior experience than had they gone with Surface tablets.
All companies do this at some level: Google uses its dominance in search to pull more users into its ecosystem of apps. Apple has successfully made iTunes and the App Store into an ecosystem that many do not wish to leave.
At the same time, Microsoft had an opportunity to become the dominant, cross-platform productivity suite but missed it. If the company had chosen to it could have built strong versions of Office for both iOS and Android and made plenty of money doing so. Instead, Office has been used more as bait to gain more Windows users.
Nearly every time I have known someone to get their first iPad, the question is always, “can I get Office on this?” In the past few years since the iPad first was unveiled, that answer has only changed from “No” to “Sort of.”
(For Business and Productivity apps, for the iPad and other platforms, check TabTimes.com/appstore)