Why the real Box Notes target isn't Microsoft Office

Cloud-centric office offerings from Apple and Box don't take aim at Microsoft Office so much as they do Office Web Apps.
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

In the past week-plus, Apple announced plans to make its iWork office suite free for iOS users, and Box has fielded a preview of its own collaborative note-taking technology. On cue, many tech pundits began sounding the "Microsoft Office is in trouble" horn, yet again.


Some seem to have forgotten (or maybe just have never heard of?) another Microsoft offering that is is key to the cross-platform office wars. That competitive technology is Office Web Apps.

Office Web Apps are the free, Webified versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote, which Microsoft first introduced with Office 2010. Office Web Apps are usable in a variety of browsers -- including Internet Explorer, Chrome, Firefox and Safari -- on different operating systems and form factors (PCs, tablets, smartphones). Office Web Apps include a subset of the functionality in the full Office versions of each of the apps. Microsoft claims to have 50 million active users accessing these apps every month.

Box Notes, from what I've read about the preview launched today, is a very rudimentary OneNote-type product. iWork for iCloud is the cross-platform version of iWork that Apple made available in beta form earlier this year. Like Office Web Apps, it works inside a browser -- specifically Safari, IE and Chrome.

Microsoft hasn't been crowing much about Office Web Apps lately, but the technology is still moving forward. Microsoft made a bunch of updates to Office Web Apps in June of this year. Just last week, the Excel Web App team explained in a blog post how they prioritize which features to add first. In that post, the team also listed more than a dozen features that are next on its "to-do" list, including the addition of support for editing files with VBA, hiding and unhiding rows and columns and adding/editing comments (comments are already viewable). Further Yammer integration with Office Web Apps is supposedly a fall 2013 thing, last we heard.

Android tablet support also is on the Office Web Apps' team list of platforms which it plans to support fully. As the team noted back in May, Microsoft's goal is to support Android tablets via the Chrome browser the same way it already supports Windows 8 tablets and iPads.

Speaking of multiplatform support, I've gotten a number of questions lately as to when and if Microsoft still plans to go beyond Office Web Apps (and the recently announced Office Mobile for iPhone) and deliver the long-rumored native Office for iPad application that it allegedly has developed.

I hear that project is still on -- though it's tough to say with any degree of certainty what the new Microsoft Applications & Services team is now planning, post-reorg. Before it rolls out any kind of native Office suite for iPad or Android tablets, however, Microsoft first needs to field a preview/test build of its coming Metro-Style/Windows Store Office apps, codenamed "Gemini." Microsoft execs said earlier this year that the Gemini apps are not expected to be generally available (in post-preview form) until some time in 2014.

Once those apps are out, Microsoft is supposedly on track to deliver the iPad version of its core Office apps. The fall 2014 target for Office for iPad still sounds like it could be right -- unless Microsoft decides to go earlier than than originally planned (as it seemingly did with Outlook for Windows RT).

Some of us Microsoft watchers are expecting if and when Office for iPad arrives, there could be an Office 365 subscription requirement, like there is for Office Mobile for iPhone. It's worth noting that for consumers, there's no such requirement with Office Web Apps; they are accessible via SkyDrive.com.

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