“The one argument against the iPad you hear from people is, ‘I can’t run Office,’” said Michael Oh, founder of Tech Superpowers, an Apple solutions provider in Boston.
There are some adequate alternatives, but Office is a different beast.
That could change in the coming weeks. A Microsoft Office app with Word, Excel, and PowerPoint will be available soon for iPad, according to published reports. The app will allow users to create documents and edit them locally or online. It may also integrate with Microsoft’s cloud storage app, SkyDrive.
“The hope is, if and when it comes out, Office will handle documents better than the alternatives out there,” said Brian Katz, director of mobility engineering at Sanofi-Aventis, a health care solutions provider based in Bridgewater, N.J.
A Microsoft spokesperson said initial reports about an iPad Office app contained “bad info” that would be exposed as such in the “coming weeks.” The company spokesperson wouldn’t elaborate further.
Industry watchers said the timing of these reports is strange because Microsoft could have demonstrated a workable iPad Office app during its otherwise ho-hum display at the Consumer Electronics Show in January. At the same time, the Microsoft Office app release could be on hold until the Windows 8 tabletis ready to compete with the iPad.
Either way, an iPad Office app will give users a way to edit Word or Excel docs in a familiar application environment, Katz said.
“If you have Microsoft Office, [the iPad] becomes a whole new enterprise device,” he said.
iPad Office app alternatives fall short
The longer Microsoft waits to release an iPad Office app, the more businesses will come to realize work can be done without Office, said Alan Pelz-Sharpe, an analyst for the Real Story Group, a buyer’s advocacy group based in Maryland.
"[Apple] iPad users have had a couple of years now to work without Office,” Pelz-Sharpe said.
But Microsoft Office app alternatives, such as Apple’s Pages, OpenOffice or Quickoffice, aren’t considered as effective as Microsoft Office, Oh said.
Plus, most firms are Microsoft-centric, so a true Office app would be a better enterprise fit, “while ironically validating Apple devices as enterprise ready," Pelz-Sharpe said.
“Microsoft’s hand is forced,” said Oh. “It’s all about software sales, licenses and user bases, so why would they not develop [Office] for the iPad?”
Apple iPad users can also use Office 365, a cloud-based version of Office that competes with Google Docs. The downside to Office 365 is that it only allows users to view and edit documents while they’re connected to the Internet.
But a native Microsoft Office app would be more exciting than any of the alternatives, even if the iPad Office app doesn’t offer as many features as the desktop version, said Wes Miller, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft, based in Kirkland, Wash.
iPad Office app features, pricing in question
Microsoft’s challenge is to introduce Office for the iPad without undercutting Office on Windows desktops or the upcoming Windows 8 tablet, Miller said. If Microsoft offers a full Office feature set on the iPad, customers may not need the program on other devices, he said.
The balance will be to determine which features are good enough for the iPad while reinforcing the concept that Office is best on Windows -- think “Office goes to IKEA,” he added.
Many IT pros also wonder how Microsoft will price Office for iPad.
“It’s a tricky spot,” Miller said. “If they price it too high, no one will buy it, but if they price it too low, they won’t make any money.”
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Because the Microsoft Office app will be available only through Apple’s App Store (as is the case with all iOS apps), businesses won’t be able to purchase multiple licenses or take advantage of any enterprise licensing deals from Microsoft. Apple will also take its customary 30% cut, explained Jordan McClead, a mobile technologist for a large university in the Northeast
The iPad Office app probably won’t be a $5 app, but employees and businesses alike may splurge for Office in the $20-$30 range, McClead said.
Regardless of cost, like other IT pros, McClead believes “it’ll be a management win” for IT departments struggling to help existing iPad users “troubleshoot document editing.”
“There are some adequate alternatives, but Office is a different beast,” he added.