Office for iPad: Readers yawn but users apping it up

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.
Written by David Braue, Contributor

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?

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