Microsoft goes all in with Android apps for business

In the past year, Microsoft has been delivering apps at breakneck speed to the Google Play Store. Some are strictly for fun, but the majority are aimed at Microsoft's bedrock business customers. Here's an overview of what you'll find for your Android phone.

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If you visit the Google Play Store on your Android phone right now, you'll find no fewer than 85 apps from Microsoft. The list contains some serious heavyweights, including the entire Office suite, with Word, Excel, Outlook, and company boasting more than 10 million downloads apiece.

Even more impressive is how frequently those apps have been updated in the past year. Last year around this time, I surveyed the Microsoft app landscape on Android and found some serious gaps. The only option for working with Office files was the weak Office Mobile app, for example, and Outlook was still known by its old name, Acompli.

I've been using Microsoft apps and services on Android for the past nine months, and in that brief time the evolution has been impressive. Not surprisingly, I've become significantly more productive in that time.

For this post and accompanying gallery, I've assembled an inventory of interesting business-class apps from Microsoft. I've left out some consumer-focused stalwarts, including the much-improved Groove Music and the Xbox One SmartGlass app, which is an indispensable after-hours tool.

If your work life revolves around Microsoft services and Android hardware, here's a field guide to help you find the best apps coming out of Redmond. (To see the full assortment of apps, visit Microsoft's page at the Google Play Store.)

OneDrive

Ironically, the iOS and Android apps beat their Windows counterparts to the punch with a key feature. You can now connect the OneDrive apps to personal and business accounts, then switch between those files as easily as you would switch between accounts in an email app.

One feature I particularly like about the display of files in the OneDrive Android app is a small Info icon at the right of each file and folder. Tap that icon for details about the selection, and for files, slide a switch to keep the file available offline.

I used the photo sharing features of OneDrive to share screenshots from my phone to the gallery that accompanies this article, a process that took only a few taps.

Office

What a difference a year makes. Last year at this time, trying to get any serious work done with Office documents on an Android smartphone was difficult, because only the weak Office Mobile app was available. Today, there are full-strength Office apps, available for the platform, including Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote.

You probably wouldn't want to create a doctoral dissertation in one of these apps, but for reading and light editing they're extremely effective. And just as with the desktop Office apps on Windows and OS X, the consistent interface makes it easy to switch between apps while remaining productive.

The most recent member of the Office family is Outlook, which combines features from two smart acquisitions, Acompli and Sunrise Calendar. I have Outlook connected to two Exchange accounts, and it does a fine job of managing email, calendars, and contacts.

The swipe actions are customizable, and the Focused Inbox feature is uncannily accurate at sorting important mail from stuff I don't really care about. My only complaint is that there's no fine-grained control over sync intervals.

But the real sleeper of Office on a smartphone is the Office Lens app, which lets you treat your smartphone camera as if it were a scanner. It's optimized to capture content from whiteboards, printed documents, business cards, and ordinary photos and save it in any of a half-dozen formats.

Utilities

Microsoft's lineup of Android apps includes a surprising number of utilities designed to make the Android experience better. There's Next Lock Screen, for example, which rotates Bing images and provides enhanced notifications and action buttons on the lock screen.

Cortana is on Android now as well. A few months ago I found it too slow and buggy to take seriously, but thanks to some recent updates it's become very useful indeed. My only complaint is that it frequently loses contact with the microphone.

And someone at Microsoft loves alternative keyboards. Microsoft has a special keyboard for use with Excel, and another called the Hub keyboard, which adds an Office 365 search bar to the top of the input panel. But the big news is the recent acquisition of SwiftKey, one of the premier alternative keyboards for both Android and iOS. I can't wait to see what this talented team does with Microsoft's resources behind them, and I expect that the in-app purchases will go away soon.

For IT pros

If you're a sysadmin running Microsoft Intune or supporting Dynamics CRM, you'll find a half-dozen Android apps for each of those products. There's also a serviceable Office 365 Admin tool that could stand some beefing up.

Two apps that have a place of honor on my home screen are two-factor authentication apps for Microsoft Accounts and Azure Active Directory (which includes Office 365 business subscriptions). Both apps are easy to set up, lightweight, and extremely reassuring.

OK, Android users, which of your favorite apps did I miss? Leave your comments and nominations in the comments below.

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