Office for iPad: Readers yawn but users apping it up

Office for iPad: Readers yawn but users apping it up

Summary: Readers may have given the ZDNet Great Debate to the 'yawn' vote, but the fact that Office for iPad apps are flying off the shelves suggests that Microsoft has indeed captured the imaginations of increasingly mobile users. Whether it can keep them, is the big question.


I was somewhat surprised that Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols decided to approach our ZDNet Great Debate by playing the man rather than the ball.

The problem with Microsoft Office for iPad, he chose to argue, is not Microsoft Office for iPad but the very idea of productivity suites on the iPad in general. Deciding whether Office is a better choice than other alternatives, he seems to feel, is not unlike deciding which Friday the 13th sequel is the best to show at your mother's retirement home movie night.

It enters a crowded field, but Office for iPad has Microsoft's weight and corporate nous behind it. Screenshot: David Braue/ZDNet

I'm not the only one who disagrees: Microsoft apparently moved 12 million copies of Office for iPad in its first nine days. How this translates into revenues is not yet clear – many users may be put off by its requirement to have an Office 365 subscription to access high-end features – but there is no doubting the interest and latent demand that Microsoft has tapped.

Clearly, people do want to be able to create content on their iPads; that shoots down much of Steven's argument, even if a majority of our Great Debate voters said they weren't too excited about Office for iPad.

I understand: the launch of a new productivity suite isn't exactly an OMG moment. However, superlative reviews – such as one suggesting Office is one of Microsoft's “finest moments” (which may be saying a lot or not very much depending on how you feel about the Redmond Giant) tell us that Office is better than most alternatives. More importantly, its integration with Microsoft's expanding cloud-based ecosystem ensures that it will become an important arm in the company's expanding media-creation reboot.

More important in the long term will be to see how the Office for iPad ecosystem is expanded: which further apps Microsoft builds for the platform, which features it adds to subsequent iterations, and whether it's willing to relax the Office 365 requirement (which is really just Microsoft's way around giving Apple 30 percent of its Office for iPad revenues) to boost penetration and usage of the suite in the increasingly important mobile market.

Microsoft's competition is, after all, the likes of Google Apps and Pages, which are readily available and – in Pages' case, if you've recently bought an iPad – free. Any business person knows it's worth spending money on anything that will generate more economic value than it costs – which makes Office 365 look like a bargain – but even the whiff of a charge-based model could alienate the many users who have become used to getting things for free.

Any business person knows it's worth spending money on anything that will generate more economic value than it costs – which makes Office 365 look like a bargain – but even the whiff of a charge-based model could alienate the many users who have become used to getting things for free.

In some cases, I admit, I am one of them; I have crowed long and loud about my conversion from Office for Mac to Apache OpenOffice, which recently passed the four-month milestone. Yet while it's nice that OpenOffice is free, the even nicer thing about this suite is that it just works – reliably, predictably, and efficiently.

I cannot say the same for Office for Mac (OfM), which sort-of works most of the time and occasionally collapses into a blubbering, document-shredding, productivity-killing heap. Presumably the next version of OfM will fix these bugs (and likely introduce new ones), as well as following in the cloud direction by becoming aware of both OneDrive and users' growing desire to move documents to and from their iPads.

For example, Steven's concerns about licensing are entirely legitimate. Microsoft will need to clarify its positioning for the app in recognition of the unique demands of its core enterprise customers; I'm sure the company knows this and will – just as it did in releasing its specialised OneDrive for Business offering – clarify its offering for this market once the initial frenzy over Office for iPad eases.

I'm ambivalent about Steven's statements about the implications for Windows RT, whose Office support has been a major differentiator. Offering Office on the iPad will appease iPad fans who have eyed the Office capabilities of the Surface Pro with some longing but have been loathe to add yet another device to their already-overflowing laptop bags – but they were never going to convert anyway.

Surface Pro has its own charms – frankly, I like the tiled interface much better than iOS' Sandinsky-esque interface redesign – but market realities are market realities and the iPad is still king of the tablet space. Microsoft makes a lot of noise about the Surface Pro's keyboard, but – despite Steven's question as to whether it's “a good use of your money” – you can get a perfectly usable iPad productivity experience by adding one of numerous good iPad keyboards.

I should know: I do it all of the time.

I still use my MacBook Pro when it's time to do heavy lifting, but on many occasions I'll swap my iPad from its media-consuming leather case into a my Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover, then gone to town with a keyboard that's comfortable to use and quick to type on.

Such a setup fits on the airplane seat-back tray much better than a full laptop, and it's easier to pack when all I need is a way to take notes during a meeting. The weak spot in my iPad-productivity setup has always been the actual productivity tools – I've tried several options before setting into a mostly-comfortable relationship with Dataviz Documents To Go – but the availability of a Microsoft-sanctioned iPad productivity suite offers a great additional option.

Would you write your PhD thesis on the iPad? Of course not; there are many, many things that the full version of Office can accomplish that iPads can still only dream of. Consider the broad range of add-ons, extensive scripting capabilities, and the maturity of the products in the desktop version of the suite and it's clear that many users still won't need much persuading to use it.

For the rest of us, however, it's great that Microsoft has set the new baseline for Office compatibility on the device that most of us are using for an increasing share of our work. Office for iPad will only get better – and, with the inevitable addition of features that better tie it into corporate collaboration environments, we can expect it to become a must-have for mobile workers in the future.

What do you think? Did the Great Debate change your mind about Office for iPad? And, if you were on the 'yawn' side, what would it take for you to actually get excited about the apps?

Topics: iPad, Apple, Presentations, Microsoft Surface, Google Apps, Telework, Tablets, Software, Mobility, Microsoft, Laptops, iOS, Great debate, Enterprise Software, Collaboration, Cloud, Apps, Windows Phone


Australia’s first-world economy relies on first-rate IT and telecommunications innovation. David Braue, an award-winning IT journalist and former Macworld editor, covers its challenges, successes and lessons learned as it uses ICT to assert its leadership in the developing Asia-Pacific region – and strengthen its reputation on the world stage.

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  • Dare I say it? Office for iPad apps were an App Store "hit" because they

    were free to download.

    I argued that these applications would be of great benefit for business users, their corporations and for Microsoft's enterprise software support business units. I know for one that my previous corporate manufacturing responsibilities would have been enhanced significantly by the use of a lightweight, long lasting mobile tablet with Office for iPad applications installed on it. And, I doubt if I would be alone in discovering those benefits for using such a hardware/software solution.

    Even as a home use "prosumer", I can find many uses for these Office Suite tablet applications from Microsoft. However, those benefits have been, for the most part, provided to consumers from competing tablet Office Suite Applications for quite sometime now. This observation cannot be denied. And, in this type of environment, the added cost for a subscription service would become a negative influence impacting long range use for these Microsoft products.
    • But the free app can't be used for business

      Many of today's iPad users grew up believing that software should be free. I fully expect most of them to ignore their agreement and use their Office to do business.
      • Please allow me to fix your statement

        "Many of today's Android users grew up believing that software should be free."

        Much better! :)
        Rabid Howler Monkey
        • Please allow me to fix your statement

          "Many of today's Android users grew up believing that software should be buggy, free and virus friendly."
          • And where did Android user's learn that ?

            From years of using Windows of course, except the free bit.
            Alan Smithie
      • The free versions

        can be used to read documents, just not edit. So I don't think there is a "can't do business" point if all you are doing is reading business documents.
    • They need to support more protocols

      it would be even better if the free version would at least support SMB or UNC FTP or hell even the ability to connect to a IIS Server hosting a UNC path on the network!
      i installed it, seen i needed a MS account and then proceeded to uninstall it.
  • When is a tablet not a tablet?

    It's not a tablet when you hook up an external keyboard, mouse and plug it into a monitor. Then it's just computer in a smaller box, and that's the only configuration that's viable for productivity.

    I agree with the article that the Windows tiled interface is much nicer than the iOS UI. There are Windows Pro tablets that are a better value than an iPad. Office comes with Windows RT, and on the Dell Windows Pro tablets.

    I have an Office suite for Android that I've never used. Sorry, but I'm still yawing.
    • Consumption vs Creation

      Try as I might, I can't get too excited about Office for iPad either. I have yet to find a truly valid reason to own both the iPad and the Windows tablets I've bought.

      Tablets are for consuming media; laptops (and full computers) are for creating media.
      Ira Seigel
    • Windows RT?

  • Free Downloads

    If I had an iPad I probably would download the free MS Office apps if only out of curiosity. Whether I would use them regularly and by extension Office 365, doubtful. The problem with the hype is one needs to ask actual users why they downloaded the apps (or not) and those with the app installed what they plan to do with it. Some downloaded it out curiosity, some because they wanted an official MS app to view Office documents, and others want to use Office/Office 365. The split between each group is unknown. What is also important is how many Office 365 subscriptions the apps generate.

    The real question is not the absolute number of downloads of a free app, but how many will pay money for a more useful version or subscription. If very few are wiling to spend money, then the download figures are misleading - impressive at first glance but no decent cash flow. If a significant percentage (say 1 out of 3) buy the upgrade, then the figures are important because there is significant cash being generated.
  • The fact is

    People like Steven were hoping it would be a yawn and hardly anybody would download or pay for it. The fact is, Office for iPad is both popular as a free download and grossing app. The envy and bad mind (as we call it in my country) never worked.
    • "fact..Office for iPad is both popular as a free download and grossing app"

      Links? I ask because it's very early days for the release of this information.

      Also, who do you work for, Apple or Microsoft? I ask because these two companies are the only ones who currently know the facts. In addition, since Apple gets a 30% cut of the Office365 subscription revenue purchased through Office for iPad, it has no reason to misrepresent the facts. Remember, the iWork apps are now free with the iPad. Office for iPad is gray for Apple.
      Rabid Howler Monkey
      • Ugh! "Office for iPad Office365 subscriptions are gravy for Apple."

        Rabid Howler Monkey
      • Link? What link? Just go in the app store

        There's always a link telling you what the top apps are, what the top grossing apps are, etc. No special links or Gartner reports required.
  • ZDNet readers aren't the right sample for surveying

    If one thinks ZDNet community as great sample to check some company status, they need their brains checked. It is good the US government isn't taking suggestions from ZDNet community to day to day operations.
    Ram U
  • Give Credit Where Credit Is Due

    Microsoft Office for iPad is the ONLY version of Mobile office that works. Most of the workbooks we produce in Excel will not render when sent to Numbers, OfficeHD, Google Docs, Choose any MS "compatible" Office Suite etc etc. When you work in business, "might work" is not good enough, "always works" is the bare minimum. Office for iPad delivers this. I can now take my historical iPad2 or Surface Pro 2 anywhere with me and irrespective of device, I can download email with Office attachments that WILL ALWAYS work. That is why this solution is popular and why people doing real work get it. They don't need to be sold to, they have experienced the problems.
    • Use GoodReader

      I found Goodreader to be the best for handling all MS document types, it isnt as good as Office for Ipad but it atleat has a folder structure and also the ability to open most if not all document types.
  • Microsoft Office is the defacto world standard

    Any platform that cannot supply a native Microsoft Office Suite will always leave the user feeling a bit cheated in some way. Usually due to failed rendering. Even the most casual user on the planet is aware of this shortcoming. The open source community KNOW that OpenOffice is a very poor clone of a very old Office suite and it continues to fail in rendering true Office documents. You can create a logical argument against Office, you can force yourself to make personal adjustments to counter the shortcomings of your preferred package but in the end you know at some level you are not getting the total experience. And in documents, presentations and spreadsheets Office really is the standard everyone will measure you by. As the old advert used to say "We may be number two, but we try harder." A lot of us don't want to try harder, we just want to get on with our work which is quite enough without making more by trying to use an inferior piece of software to get it done.
    The Heretic
    • MS Office is the Defacto!

      you nailed it David.