(Updated with Google's Nov. 17 announcement): It's soooo easy to get caught up on the latest iPad app that turns Twitter into a video game or rumors of an iPad 2 commercial being shot by a latter-day Austin Powers, and forget that most potential iPad buyers have much more basic concerns.
Like one reader, who wrote in: "I work in school administration and also work for a not for profit...I have a question and cannot seem to get a straight answer: can you use Microsoft Word and Excel on the iPad? Is there some kind of app that would allow you to access a Word doc and edit it and send it back to yourself? This is the one area that I cannot seem to really get a handle on, which in turn keeps me from laying out my 600 bucks."
Excellent question! I did a little digging around and compiled a comprehensive list of all the various options for viewing/editing Microsoft Office documents on an iPad:
1) Microsoft Office Web Apps - free, but view-only on iPad
Office Web Apps is Microsoft's grudging reply to Google Docs. So it's a lightweight version of Office that, like Google Docs, lets users easily collaborate on docs.
Office Web Apps lacks many of Office's bells and whistles. Most users won't find that too much of a problem, especially since Office Web Apps is free (when using Microsoft's Skydrive service to host the documents).
There are major downsides to Office Web Apps, however, as far as mobile users are concerned:
a) The only mobile devices it runs on are iPads, iPhones (and iTouches) and Windows Phone 7 devices;
b) For iOS-based devices like the iPad, Office Web Apps today offers view-only access, and only to Word and PowerPoint (though there are some rumors that this could change now that iOS 4.2 is available);
c) Despite its name, Office Web Apps is a hosted service, not a mobile app. Meaning its usability depends heavily on the quality of your network connection.
Here's a chart that ZDNet's Mary Jo Foley put up that nicely summarizes the situation today.
Side note #1: Don't be fooled by headlines like this around Microsoft's recently-announced Office 365. Office 365 offers Office Web Apps plus access to hosted versions of Outlook e-mail, Sharepoint collaboration, and Lync instant messaging (formerly Office Communicator), as well as the ability to download the full version of Office 2010 Professional Plus. That's nice for PC users, but pointless to iPad users, since Office can't be installed on iOS.
Side note #2: Microsoft also has something called Office 2010 Mobile. This is a full editing/viewing version of Office 2010, but it only works on Windows Mobile 6.5 phones.
Side note #3: Despite all of this, there is a way to run a full, edit-capable version of Office on your iPad. It's called application virtualization, and it requires a thin-client app such as Citrix Receiver for iPad and a server-hosted version of Office running in your enterprise data center. Alas, this is neither cheap nor easy for most IT shops to set up, which is why it remains uncommon.
2) Apple iWork for iPad - elegant, but could still frustrate the power user
Apple's counterparts to Word, Excel and PowerPoint are called Pages, Numbers and Keynote. They cost $9.99 each from Apple's App Store. Each can import and edit the relevant Microsoft Office documents. While they don't natively save in the Office format, they can, as of September, all export documents into the Office format.
So that handily spanks Office Web Apps so far. But here's the catch: while iWork can import a variety of Office formats, it cannot export to the latest Office Open XML format used by Office 2007 and 2010. These are files ending in 'x', such as .docx, .xlsx and .pptx. That could mean an extra file save and the loss of some formatting in the process.
iWork's export to Office is mostly smooth, albeit limited to pre-Office 2007 formats.
And how smooth is the export? Skimming the reviews for the latest version of Pages in iTunes' App Store, I saw more than a dozen complaints about Pages (in)ability to export to PDF. There were only a few complaints about the Word export. Some users complained about font problems during Keynote import/export. The most serious complaints seemed to involve import-export between Numbers-Excel. "Created a spreadsheet using Apple's Invoice template (& yes, the app gets points for looking beautiful)," went one November review. "But after exporting to Excel on my Mac, it distributed my invoice data across several different spreadsheets in Excel!!! What was once an impressive looking spreadsheet on my iPad became an unusable mess in Excel. And importing an Excel spreadsheet into the app didn't go much better."
"Was hoping to work with my excel docs in this app... No dice. Always returns errors and usually wont even open my documents...Waste of 10 bucks," went another review in the App Store. Still another reviewer claimed to encounter "15 different errors" after importing an Excel spreadsheet.
App Store reviewers still gave iWork an overall 4 out of 5 stars, tops among the iPad productivity apps listed here.
Bottom line: Power users may be frustrated by iWork's handling of Office documents, but it may be serviceable for most everyone else.
3) Google Docs - 'primitive' spreadsheet and document editing
On November 17, Google announced that iPhone, iPad as well as Android 2.2 Froyo users will now be able to edit existing text documents, in addition to the existing ability to edit spreadsheets. Android users get a cool new feature - the ability to edit documents using voice commands.
Otherwise, the editing capability is, in the words of a PC World reviewer, "appears to be primitive compared to proper office apps, with only the ability to write text in the document's current font, edit spread sheets and add bullet points...The list of missing features is still pretty long. You can't create new documents, change fonts or styles, add hyperlinks, format text, add images, or do any other advanced editing that Google Docs already allows on the desktop." So ratchet your expectations accordingly.
4) Documents To Go - does it live up to its impressive pedigree on the iPad?
This app is created by DataViz, who have proven themselves over the last decade with their Office viewers/editors for the BlackBerry and other smartphones.
For the iPad, Documents To Go comes in two versions: a $9.99 version that offers viewing/editing of Word and Excel documents, including Office Open XML files, and a $16.99 Premium version that adds PowerPoint viewing/editing. It also can access files hosted at the widest variety of cloud sources: Google Docs, Box.net, DropBox, Apple's iDisk and SugarSync.
TiPb liked the syncing features of Documents To Go, and rated it "absolutely fantastic" for the average user, though somewhat lacking for enterprise users.
ZDNet's Matthew Miller called Documents To Go "very powerful" and his personal favorite, though he noted that the app, originally written for the smaller iPhone, had not at that time been rewritten to take advantage of the iPad's 10-inch screen.
Version 4.0, released since that review, fixes some of that. However, the current version only garners 3 out of 5 stars from App Store reviewers. Complaints include limited font support, tendency to crash, synchronization problems, poor technical support, and more (see DataViz's Documents To Go iOS forum to read more).
5) QuickOffice Connect - flexible, slick but may be missing some advanced features.
A relative newcomer (it was released in June), the $19.99 QuickOffice offers viewing/editing of Word and Excel files, and viewing of PowerPoint documents, including Office 2007/2010 docs. Like Documents To Go, it also gives users a choice of online hosting platforms (Box.net, Google Docs, DropBox, MobileMe).
TiPb's reviewer praised QuickOffice's user interface and navigation features, but decried its lack of advanced features.
Laptop magazine's reviewer gave QuickOffice 4 out of 5 stars, praising its "attractive interface and ability to sync with files stored all over the cloud," but agreed that the lack of PowerPoint editing could be a problem.
App Store reviewers give it 3 out of 5 stars for the current version.
6) Office2 HD - how are the trade-offs?
At $7.99, Office2 HD is the least expensive of the choices for editing Office documents. Like QuickOffice and Documents To Go's standard version, Office2 HD lets you view and create Word (DOC and DOCX) and Excel (XLS) documents, but only view PowerPoint files. And like the two above, it can access documents at a number of locations (Google Docs, DropBox and MobileMe).
GigaOm called Office2 HD "surprisingly full-featured if you approach it with a Google Docs mentality — it’s good enough for most users, but won’t replace every function found in the Microsoft Office suite. Aside from charts and other advanced features offered by Google Docs, the basics are all here."
Office2 HD: a bargain for the no-frills-seeking user.
MacWorld, meanwhile, opined "while iWork may offer nicer-looking and more capable editing and formatting options, the fact that you can use Office2 to easily access your work documents make it a practical and powerful tool for getting real work done."
TabletPCReview gave Office2 HD 3 out of 5 stars, faulting it for crashing a few times without any error messages, along with other more minor issues, but still calling it a "fairly decent deal".
App Store reviewers give Office2 HD 3.5 out of 5 stars for the current version.