Delaying Office for iOS until 2014 gives Microsoft Surface, Windows 8 vital breathing space

By holding off on Office for iOS until next year, Microsoft is giving Windows 8 and its Surface hardware a fighting chance
Written by Steve Ranger, Global News Director on

There's been endless discussion of whether — and, more recently, when — Microsoft would release a version of Office for iOS.

It's now possible that an iPad-friendly version of Office will not appear until autumn of next year, according to a roadmap shared with my ZDNet colleague Mary Jo Foley.

Autumn 2014 is a lot later release date than many expected, but it perhaps reflects the complicated balancing act Microsoft has to do here: any decisions around Office for iOS still have to be aligned with its wider ambitions.

On the face of it, Office for iPad could be a big cash generator for Microsoft. However, Microsoft is unlikely to go down route of selling it through Apple's app store, as Ed Bott points out, due to the hefty cut Apple takes from sales. Instead, it's more likely to follow a freemium model - offering iPad users a cut down version for gratis in the hope they'll upgrade to a paid-for version later on.

However it's sold, there's a risk for Microsoft that Office for iOS could frustrate its wider aims elsewhere. Microsoft wants to keep supporting Windows to ensure it remains the de facto enterprise desktop platform, yet delivering a version of Office – the staple of business software– on iOS will undermine just that, cutting the ties that bind enterprise customers to Windows.

After all, one of the reasons that keeps businesses from buying more iPads and fewer PCs is that there is no version of Office for iOS. And right now Microsoft doesn't want to give businesses any more reasons to stop buying PCs, not with the dire figures that came out from IDC and Gartner this week that show the steepest drop in PC sales for a generation.

Holding off on releasing a version of Office for iOS for another year could also give a much needed fillip to Surface, Microsoft's ambitious laptop-tablet hybrid, which has only been on sale for a few months.

Surface needs time to win businesses' hearts and minds, especially as cautious corporates are apt to start any Surface rollout with a small trial first with bigger deployments to follow – if they like it, of course. Offering Office on the iPad right now would make any such Surface trials irrelevant.

Pushing Office for iOS to 2014 also gives Windows 8 a chance to bed down after a rather bumpy reception. Microsoft will want enterprise customers locked into Windows 8 and bought into Surface long before offering them the option of Office on an iPad.

Microsoft has hinted before that it would be adding to the Surface line, and the Wall Street Journal claims there is a seven-inch tablet in the works for later this year, which absolutely fits with the strategy. 

Delaying Office for iOS out to 2014 means that Microsoft has given Surface a two-year window to prove itself, and gives all of Microsoft's hardware partners a chance to deliver Windows-powered hardware that can compete with the iPad.

Time is – at least for now – on Microsoft's side, as few enterprises show much inclination to ditch Office for any of the other productivity suites out there. Granted Google Apps is gaining traction, but Office is still the 800-pound gorilla.

Yet if Microsoft doesn't pull off satisfying the needs of Office users who want iPad support as well as Microsoft's need to keep them tied to Windows, there's a question of how long that status quo can continue. If Microsoft really can't manage to figure out how to pull it off by late 2014, four-and-a-half years after the iPad was launched, what hope does it have? 

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