Imagining Office for the iPad


It’s no secret that Microsoft has been hard at work at a true touch-based version of its Office suite, not only for Windows’ Metro interface, but for iPad and Android tablets as well. But little has been revealed about its timing or its content. I’ve decided to let my imagination run free to create a mental picture of this office of the near–I hope–future. (I’m not the only one. Two of the most astute analysts of the tech scene, Ben Thompson (@monkbent) and former Windows and Office chief Steven Sinofsky (@stevesi) have been conducting on ongoing discussion of the future Office on Twitter.)

A key element in my thinking is that the Office users who really matter are in business, or at least professionals of one sort or another. Yes, a lot of consumers and students use Office today and will continue to. But they have many other options and are likely to continue to drift away from software that is more complex and often more expensive than what they need. Consumers are not the future of Office.

The new Office needs two drastic changes. The fairly simple one is to change the way Office applications connect to the cloud. Office 13, by default, saves files to SkyDrive/OneDrive, with SharePoint as an alternative. On Windows tablets there is a fairly simple workaround to connect with other services because they can be integrated with the file system. But neither iOS nor Android gives users file system access, so the Office tablet apps have to come with built-in hooks to a broad range of cloud services including private SharePoint sites, Dropbox, Box, and Google Drive (yes, really.)[pullquote]A good starting point is the realization that touch tablets are not going to be used much for the creation of complicated documents.[/pullquote]

The much hard part is designing apps that really work on touch interfaces. This will necessarily require a drastic simplification of the complex, menu-driven user interfaces which requires eliminating a lot of features. It’s long been a standing Microsoft joke that every user of Word utilizes only 10% of the functions, but everyone uses a different 10%. Of course, this is not actually true; I suspect a Pareto analysis would pretty quickly yield a common core of functions that nearly everyone uses and a galaxy of rarely used features.

A good starting point is the realization that touch tablets are not going to be used much for the creation of complicated documents. You might use a tablet, particularly if it has a auxiliary keyboard, to write a quick memo or do some simple spreadsheet computation, but you are not going to write a white paper or build a financial model. Those will be jobs to be done on desktops or laptops and only occasionally tweaked on a tablet.

In Word, for example, you will be able to dispense vast areas of functions, including many of the more complicated layout, formatting, and style options. It would be best if the applications embed any fonts use, since substituting from the limited range of fonts available on a table will almost always cause problems with the precision rendering of documents. No one in their right mind is going to be using a tablet to create footnotes, end notes, bibliographies, indexes, tables of contents, or tables of authorities. Does anyone really need WordArt, SmartArt, QuickParts or a long list of options that  don’t believe I have ever needed, even as a heavy user of Office?

On the other hand, what is inescapable? I think that one scenario that will come up a lot is someone creates a document, then sends it along to a reviewer, who may give it a look on a tablet. The single most critical option will be the full palette of reviewing tools, especially  Track Changes and Comment. For spreadsheets, tablets aren’t much good for creation, but they could be very useful for analysis of modest sized layouts. So while you can eliminate a lot of functions, you want to keep the analytical tools, especially pivot tables.

The process, in other words, is not the usual kitchen sink approach,but a very careful selection of essential tools based on a careful study of use cases. I can only hope that this process is already well along. It will take all the cleverness UI designers can come up with to get all of the functioned deemed absolutely necessary into a clean and functional tablet UI. As we have seen with apps such as Apple’s own iPhoto for the iPad, the UI is still a work in progress.

Another huge issue will be the price. I expect the logical solution for Microsoft is to include tablet versions with no additional charge in the consumer, education, and small business versions of the subscription Office 365, with a similar deal for corporate subscribers. That’s going to hurt a company that is used to charging a lot of money for its software, but it is the way the world works today.






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Steve Wildstrom

Steve Wildstrom is veteran technology reporter, writer, and analyst based in the Washington, D.C. area. He created and wrote BusinessWeek’s Technology & You column for 15 years. Since leaving BusinessWeek in the fall of 2009, he has written his own blog, Wildstrom on Tech and has contributed to corporate blogs, including those of Cisco and AMD and also consults for major technology companies.

12 thoughts on “Imagining Office for the iPad”

  1. “Another huge issue will be the price. I expect the logical solution for Apple…”

    You mean Microsoft, right?

    1. I suspect Microsoft would refuse to charge for the Office apps just because of the inquiries that would come from being #1 paid for a very long time. They would need to explain how much money they’re making and why they waited so long.

      1. Putting a more positive spin on this, I would like to believe that Microsoft now understands that the survival of Office as a profitable franchise depends on them building it as a multi-platform ecosystem. Profits will be derived in the long run by delivering services, not by charging a lot up front for the software, especially on mobile devices.

    2. Oops. Even when we are writing about Microsoft, we can’t stop thinking Apple. Thanks Avi, I’ll fix it.

  2. I’m almost afraid to comment. Very good article as usual, Mr. Wildstrom, but I suspect Microsoft proper can’t reach that star. The only way this will happen, and be worth waiting for, is if Microsoft contracts it out to someone who doesn’t “think” Microsoft. Given a real specification for the file formats, as well as code for all the “imaginatively” implemented portions of the ones already published, your typical iOS developer would be a much better bet.

    1. That’s an interesting point. One question though… Other than funds, why does that contractor need MS to do it? Why wouldn’t an investment group just put up the money for the contractor? It’s a rhetorical question. What investor would want to be beholden to one avenue of sales?

      1. Have you seen the Office file format specifications? They’re publicly available, yet impossible to implement unless you have additional information that only Microsoft can provide. That’s the reason why you need Microsoft’s support.

        Everything Office does can be done with other applications, but those file formats are where the value lies. If I can read/write/alter native DOC, XLS and PPT files, I don’t need Microsoft for anything…at all… It’s problems with the interpretation of the file formats that make everything else an unsuitable replacement.

        1. Excellent point. Didn’t think of that.
          I wonder what the best way would be to standardize on XML or pdf or something else.

  3. I seem to remember being able to do useful work on computers, with far less power, on DOS! Those machines were even slower than ARM, were capped at less RAM (640K) and had 20-40 MB hard drives. They could print, use a modem, and even multitask with the proper 3rd party software. The advent of Windows eventually showed that you could tack on a resource hungry GUI, on CPU’s that were still slower than ARM of today, and still get useful work done.

    Granted, it sucked, but not having, and not being able to have, sucks worse. Much worse! That’s why we bought and used computers in the first place. The main technical issue, as you state, is really the interface, not the features. Whether a user uses features is optional, as it should be.

    Then there are the business conflicts. Let’s pretend Office for iOS exists, but Apple and MS can’t reach agreement on bringing it to iOS. MS has their own store, their own infrastructure, and their own customers (that happen to also own iOS devices). MS doesn’t need Apple to sell Office. Not for awareness, not for distribution, not for any reason really. In fact, an argument could be made that Office on iOS would sell more iPads. Who should be paying who in that circumstance? If Apple makes accommodation for MS, would that be a slap in the face to all their other loyal developers?
    Considering that releasing Office on iOS would also be MS waving the white flag in mobile, I wouldn’t be holding my breath. Not yet anyway. MS doesn’t need the money.

    1. Why on earth would Microsoft have trouble getting an iOS version of Office apps into the Apple App Store? The app Store rules aren’t likely to be an issue. The biggest complexity would be making the apps free only to users who have Office 360 subs, if Microsoft chooses to go that way–they’d have to do some trick with registering the app to connect it. It can’t be that hard–the New York Times and the New Yorker do something like that to get print subscribers content in the iPad apps. Microsoft already has Office-related iOS and Android apps, including SkyDrive, Lync, and, of course, Skype.

      1. “Why on earth would Microsoft have trouble getting an iOS version of Office apps into the Apple App Store?”
        One possible reason, with precedent, is that Apple could reject it, saying “it sucks!”. Now that would be really funny! And infuriating, but mostly funny.

        Because even when “free” it’s abiding by other’s rules. I likely won’t be “free”, and even if it were, Apple has been known to go after revenue derived outside the store on iOS apps. But still, what are your thoughts of Apple paying MS to port to iOS? We both know the answer, but it would sell more iPads.

      2. Office 360 is already available for iPhone. That’s not an issue.

        Apple, I assure you, would not deny Microsoft Office cavalierly. They want Office 360, and they want it to be good. If it’s even workable, Apple will give it priority and may even do a special promotional page in the App Store.

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