Office for iPad: That ship has sailed

Industry watchers have long been looking for Microsoft to produce a version of Office for the iPad. Odds are, owners of the iPad aren't looking.

Office iPad

Rumors about a version of Microsoft Office for the iPad have been around for a long time and resurface every so often. While it has been said that the folks in Redmond have already produced an unreleased Office for iPad, it's apparently buried in the back halls somewhere on the vast Microsoft campus.

Our own Mary Jo Foley has been expecting Office for iPad for so long that she's now openly asking why it's taking Microsoft so long to release it. She smartly wonders if Microsoft is sitting on Office to give the company's Surface tablets a leg up on the iPad. That makes sense but it may already be too late for Office to make an impact on the iPad.

Had a version of Office for the iPad been released a few years ago it might, and that's a very uncertain might, have been snapped up by iPad owners. Office is familiar to many given its long history on Windows and that probably would have led to sales to iPad owners.

A stripped down Office couldn't be sold as full Office for the iPad, so there would be no real advantage over existing apps for the iPad.

Now it's a different story, as the absence of Office for iPad owners has pushed those who need the capability Office provides to turn to competitive products. Apple's own office suite, Pages, Numbers, and Keynote, has been a top seller for a long time. These apps are good enough for most buyers as they can be used to easily produce attractive documents. There are also several third-party office suites for those who don't care for the Apple apps.

Most of these apps can read documents in Office format directly and import into the app properly. Office documents that have been created using sophisticated, little used features of Microsoft Office, may not appear exactly as they would in genuine Office, but odds are not very many iPad owners work with those. Simpler documents, the kind most commonly used by iPad owners, can be used just fine without Microsoft Office on the tablet.

Complex documents that require full Office to use properly could be a selling point for an iPad version, but that's a double-edged sword for Microsoft. For those who need full Office, the version for the iPad would have to rival the Windows version. Office is a huge, feature-laden piece of software and there's no way a full port to the iPad would be done. It's probably not even possible to include many of the features. A stripped down Office couldn't be sold as full Office for the iPad, so there would be no real advantage over existing apps for the iPad.

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Odds are, those who need full Office on a tablet have already bought, or plan to buy, a Windows tablet. Microsoft is using Office as a selling point for its Surface tablets, and that's an effective angle. Need Office, buy a Windows tablet. 

That runs counter to selling Office for the iPad. If the iPad version is full featured, then there's no need to buy a Surface. If it's not, then buying a Windows tablet is all that makes sense. You can't have it both ways and expect to sell a lot of Office for iPad licenses and Surface tablets.

Microsoft can probably find a niche with iPad owners who participate in BYOD programs. The corporate world might insist on having "real" Office if it's available, and that would lead to sales. Such iPad owners are in the minority so it won't set sales records of Office. That will also expose the deficiencies in Office for iPad if it's stripped down to fit.

The window of opportunity for Microsoft making a big push with Office for iPad has closed. The millions of iPad owners have gotten along just fine without Office and they've moved on. Tablet buyers needing Office have bought a Surface or other Windows tablet. Office for iPad is basically a market that doesn't exist, and that will become evident immediately if and when Office for iPad appears.