Microsoft Office lands on iOS

Patrick Gray takes a look at Microsoft Office Mobile, a long-rumored version of Microsoft Office for iOS devices.

Microsoft Office 2013

A common lament about Apple's iPad in the enterprise is that it's primarily a content consumption device. The tablet excels at web browsing and even document viewing, but should you need to make even a minor edit to a Microsoft Office document, you're out of luck without third-party software. All this changed recently as Microsoft released a long-rumored version of Microsoft Office for iOS devices, Microsoft Office Mobile, continuing an interesting precedent at the company and chipping away at the content consumption argument against Apple tablets in the enterprise.

Ditch the laptop?

While Microsoft's release of Office Mobile might seem like great news for companies and individuals hoping to ditch their laptop and perform all their computing tasks on a tablet, the first release of Office on iOS has its fair share of caveats. The application is targeted to the iPhone, and I was unable to even install it on my iPad 2, getting a cryptic error about an autofocus camera being required. Apparently, you can install the software if you have a newer iPad, but it runs in a non-iPad optimized manner.

The second major caveat is that the software requires a subscription to Office 365. If your enterprise runs Office locally or you've purchased boxed software, you're currently out of luck on iOS. This eliminates a rather large portion of the potential user base, and one can only wonder if Microsoft is either intentionally limiting potential users to work the kinks out of the application or using Office Mobile on iOS as another carrot to achieve its stated objective of moving the majority of its Office users to the Office 365 cloud platform.

I was able to install Office Mobile on my iPhone and then view and edit Excel, PowerPoint, and Word documents. The interface is very similar to Windows Phone, offering fairly rich viewing of documents but rather limited editing. An Office aficionado will be a bit flabbergasted when their usual ribbon to toolbars with dozens of buttons is reduced to a few options and a menu or two. It would be difficult to generate a complex document, but in the files I opened, most of the complex formatting was preserved, and I could edit text and data with relative ease (the tasks you'd be most likely to perform on an iPhone when dealing with an Office document). This functionality would be a little thin on a tablet device like the iPad, where one might connect an external keyboard and expect to do more than basic edits.

Like the Windows Phone version of Office Mobile, reviewing functionality was limited to adding comments; there's no equivalent to "track changes," a function that many business users in an enterprise environment might find helpful, especially on a mobile device where you're more likely to be reviewing documents and adding comments than creating something from scratch.

The application does integrate well with Office 365 and personal SkyDrive accounts, the latter being a bit of an odd addition, since Office 365 is required to use the application. In both cases, you can specify a destination for your file and create new versions of a document with "Save as." This is handy for creating templates with most of your formatting and allowing you to deal primarily with text on a mobile device.

Many of the third-party Office-compatible mobile apps run circles around the current incarnation of Mobile Office for iOS, allowing extensive document formatting and access to a variety of cloud platforms, while eliminating the requirement for Office 365 and SkyDrive. If you're already an Office 365 customer, Office Mobile is a nice freebie and provides basic document editing capabilities to your iOS devices. It's certainly not at a point where laptops can be ditched, but it will work when you need to revise a document in a pinch. If you're not already an Office 365 subscriber, I certainly wouldn't enroll in the service primarily to get Office mobile access.

A cold day...

Microsoft releasing its flagship offering on a competing mobile OS might bring to mind some colorful weather-related quips, but it's a sensible strategy. Google has been dominating the mobile space as of late by offering high quality versions of its applications on all major tablet and smartphone platforms, exposing non-Android users to its offerings and generating eyeballs for its advertising, even on non-Android devices.

Microsoft has operated in a similar vein for some of its major products, offering access to Xbox-related services on iOS and releasing SkyDrive clients for all major mobile platforms. Even Office, one of Microsoft's crown jewels, is available on Mac OS, a direct and longstanding competitor of Microsoft's OS business.

While Office Mobile may not be earth shattering, and the app comes with a list of caveats that nearly outweigh the limited feature set, it's refreshing to see that Microsoft is moving away from a walled garden strategy with its Office franchise. With a functional iPad application, and perhaps a move away from requiring Office 365, this can only help keep Microsoft Office users in the fold despite increased competition from the likes of Google Docs.