Office for iPad: Is it any good?

With a polished set of Office apps for the iPad, Microsoft may be marking the end the Windows PC era.

Microsoft boss Satya Nadella's first public appearance since his appointment has gone down like a treat. The launch of the long awaited Word, Excel and Powerpoint iPad apps has been welcomed with open arms and Nadella is doing a lot right, as far as investors and users are concerned.

Microsoft stock closed last night at 14-year high -- the company’s share price is up 11 per cent since the new CEO took office -- and the Word app appeared at the number eight spot in last week’s Apple Store revenue earners.

While Microsoft seems to have found its cloud computing and mobile mojo, the question for users is how good are the new apps?

In Microsoft’s absence on the iPad a plethora of Office replacement apps have appeared; most notably Google Drive and Apple’s own office productivity products, Pages, Numbers and Keynote.

Given that there's no shortage of competitors, Microsoft has had to deliver a polished app that meets users’ high expectations.

A polished iOS app

The apps themselves are available to download for free from the Apple Store. However, users without an Office 365 account can only view Word, Excel and Powerpoint documents; to get access to all the editing and creation features a subscription with Microsoft’s Cloud Service is needed.

Downloading the apps is a straightforward task, identical to any other app. Having installed them, you’re then asked whether you have an existing Office365 account or if you want to purchase a $100 subscription.

Should you choose the latter, the purchase is made within the app, giving Apple a healthy 30 per cent clip of Microsoft’s ticket. Students of computing history will crack a wry smile at this point, as for many years Microsoft’s Apple products were a very profitable line for the company -- the rise of the tablet computer has turned the tables firmly in the marketplace.

Like most iOS apps the Office programs rely upon remote storage so it’s necessary to have either a Microsoft Office SkyDrive account, part of the Office365 service, or a business server running Sharepoint to access company files.

Configuring Sharepoint access will require talking to your business’ tech support team and possibly even some tweaking of a company’s server’s settings to work around some early glitches.

The SkyDrive setup is far simpler and quick to get started, and once up and running, current subscribers will find all their files are accessible.

A rich featured app

The first impression of using Word or Excel is ‘it’s different to the desktop version’. However, the menus have been optimised for tablet touch screens and they are intuitive; power Office users won’t find a steep learning curve from the desktop Mac or Windows versions.

The range of features available is a pleasant surprise. While Microsoft hasn’t been able to pack all the desktop office features into the iPad apps, they are much more richly featured than their competitors.

Power users will be pleased to find many of the key features of Office are available on the iPad apps; particularly useful are the Track Changes feature, which is far more powerful than the Google Drive version, and a much wider range of editing tools and functions in both Word and Powerpoint.

The Excel app is also much more powerful than the Google or Apple alternatives, although power users will be disappointed that most of the heavier analytics tools like pivot tables aren’t available on the iOS app.

Cloud computing weaknesses

A key weakness with the Office apps is multitasking -- it’s not possible to have two Word documents, Excel spreadsheets or Powerpoint presentations open at once. While this is irritating, there are workarounds, although it’s another illustration of the limitations of the Apple iPad.

Like the Google Chromebook, offline working is also a problem that limits the use of the device for travelling workers.

A limited workaround for this is to keep one important document open when switching offline. When back online, the synchronisation works promptly and well.

Possibly the biggest drawback with the Microsoft iOS apps is the company’s use of the ‘hybrid’ cloud where files are downloaded onto the device. This is opposed to Google’s ‘native’ cloud model where documents remain on the server and are edited directly.

In a collaborative environment where a number of people may have the same document open, Microsoft’s method becomes clunky and could cause problems in a heavily used, complex project.

Countering this, however, is Microsoft Office's Track Changes feature which is far superior to the Google Apps version, making it easier to monitor, accept or reject revisions and amendments.

Trapped in a walled garden

Like Google’s Chromebook, using Microsoft’s Office apps will lock users into the Microsoft ecosystem. This is something we’re increasingly seeing in cloud services, however if your business is already using Windows servers, OneDrive or Sharepoint, this is probably not a concern.

Another advantage that Microsoft has over its competitors is that the iOS apps don’t have any compatibility problems with the desktop versions -- documents created on the iPad translate without problem onto the Mac and Windows versions of Office.

Perversely, if Office for the iPad is successful, it will remove one of the last barriers for business and power home users moving off PCs and could well prove to be the final nail in the coffin for Microsoft’s own Windows franchise.

For heavy users planning on replacing a laptop with an iPad, a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse would be a good investment as the soft keyboards aren’t the most ergonomically friendly or efficient for touch typists.

On balance the Microsoft Office apps are a good productivity suite for Apple iPad users. If you’re already a Microsoft user or your organisation is already a Microsoft shop then the iPad Office apps are a must have.

For others, the question is whether it’s worth choosing to be locked into the Microsoft SkyDrive and Sharepoint ecosystem as opposed to those of Google and Apple.

For Microsoft, the Office iOS apps are a clear indication the company is serious about staking its claim in the post-PC marketplace that’s dominated by cloud computing services and mobile applications.

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