Office for iPad and Android: Microsoft's Azure Cloud and Thin Client the key?

Microsoft's Azure and RemoteFX technologies in Windows Server 2012 could be the key to deploying Office on tablet computers.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer

My colleague, Zack Whittaker reported yesterday on our main editorial blog, Between the Lines, that Microsoft has denied claims by three media sources that an Office for iPad exists and will be rolled out in time for an upcoming Sharepoint conference in November.

Microsoft says an Office app for iPad doesn't exist, and yet the media says it does? Who's right? Well, both, probably.

How can this be? It depends on how you define "App."

You see, I don't actually think Microsoft has wasted valuable development cycles on writing a native Office application for the iPad, particularly since it is about to deal with its own tablet OS rollout in Windows RT.

While Microsoft does have developers that know how to develop applications in XCode (they have a business unit that produces Office for Mac) and that a lot of the Office code for Mac which currently exists could be ported to iOS using the same development framework, it is very unlikely the company will go this route.

The level of effort required to achieve it would be difficult and substantial for a number of reasons, but the primary obstacle is memory.

The bottom line is that Office is a very memory intensive application suite and the iPad just doesn't have enough free RAM to run it well, even if you strip it down to the bare essentials, in which case it really isn't Office at all anymore.

The 3rd-Generation model may have enough to scrape by with 1GB of RAM, but the iPad 2 only has 512MB and the iPad 1 a mere 256MB, and that is before iOS itself chews up a good portion of it after it boots.

You can't effectively work on complex documents such as huge PowerPoints with these type of memory restrictions, never mind the localized storage needed to store the apps and the data files as well. And paging virtual memory on an embedded system is extremely painful to say the least.

Yes, I'm aware Apple has its own productivity suite and there are others for iPad which work fairly well for casual document editing and viewing, but they all have significant limitations.

While the iPad isn't robust enough in terms of on-board memory to run Office natively, it is perfectly suited for doing something else -- acting as a Thin Client.

Office has already been deployed on the iPad and Android tablets by the 3rd-party Onlive Desktop service and has been proven to be an effective way of deploying an office suite using virtual desktops. So we know that it works, at least with Onlive's own proprietary VDI protocol and broker technology.

I think that instead of porting a native app to the iPad using XCode, Microsoft has spent its development cycles instead deploying VDI infrastructure and Office into its own Azure public cloud.

Why would they do this? Well, I think it has to do with a larger push towards subscription-based services (such as Office 365) and the need to get Office working on as many types of systems as possible.

Using their own Remote Desktop and RemoteFX technology in Hyper-V and Windows Server 2012, and by writing native RDP/RemoteFX wrapper client apps for several OSes, including iOS, Android, Windows RT and even desktop operating systems such as Windows 7/8 and Mac OS, Microsoft Office could be deployed to any type of client computing device.

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And while 3rd-parties such as Onlive have proven they can already do this with their own service offerings on iPad and Android, Microsoft has a number of distinct and obvious advantages.

First, Microsoft owns and develops the product in question, so there's no issue with them having to license it or to tweak the user interface to present itself well on tablet OSes like iOS and Android.

They can also price what I am tentatively calling "Office 365 for Tablets" very affordably and can package up any number of services along with it, including SkyDrive storage and hosted Exchange and Sharepoint for medium and small businesses to make it extremely attractive to the prospective subscriber.

Second, because they own Office, they can write clients that are much more tightly integrated into the target OSes. For example, Windows RT and Windows 8 can have remote Office apps which run in a "seamless" mode on the Desktop.

And while Microsoft and Apple are competitors, the companies have come to a number of mutually beneficial agreements in the past which give the Redmond giant's software privileged status on Apple platforms. There is no reason to think they cannot come to a new agreement for Office to run remotely on the iPad.

Despite the presence of Apple's own office suite, I think Cupertino wants an Office 365 client for the iPad, and may overlook or contractually agree to tolerate any number of the cloud competition and app pricing issues Zack wrote about in his piece yesterday. Let's face it, a titan like Microsoft isn't going to be treated like just any app developer off the street.

Will Microsoft's own Azure Cloud be the key to deploying Office 365 on tablet platforms? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

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