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Office iOS app due in spring, but with lots of gotchas

If you want to do anything of value with Microsoft Office for iOS (or Android), you'll need an Office 365 subscription. Cheaper alternatives abound.

Microsoft Office will make its way to iOS and Android devices in the spring of 2013, but users must pay a hefty price to access all of its features -- a move that has left some experts puzzled.

The Office iOS and Android apps will be available for free, but they will only allow users to view Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents -- not edit them, according to a source with direct knowledge of Microsoft's plans. All users will have to register for a Microsoft account, and to enable editing or content creation of any kind, they must buy an Office 365 subscription, this source said.

If Office delivers a subpar experience, people will drop it.

Benjamin Robbins,

This approach is problematic because there are plenty of full-featured mobile apps that can edit Office documents, such as QuickOffice Pro HD and Pages, said Benjamin Robbins, a principal at Palador, an enterprise mobile consulting firm based in Seattle.

“Microsoft, at large, doesn’t get mobile at all,” he said. “This is proof.”

QuickOffice costs $19.99 in the Apple App Store, and Pages sells for $9.99. For individuals who bring their own devices to work, these one-time charges make much more financial sense than paying $6 per month (the lowest individual subscription rate for Office 365), Robbins said.

Who will buy Office iOS and Android apps?

Others insist Microsoft’s strategy isn’t aimed at consumers or the bring your own device (BYOD) crowd per se, but rather at businesses entrenched in the Microsoft ecosystem that have yet to go mobile. None of the competing Office-like apps measure up in quality to the real thing, said Chris Silva, an analyst with Altimeter Group, a San Mateo, Calif.-based research firm.

Organizations looking at Office 2013 might consider Office 365 instead if they knew it would unlock the power of Office iOS and Android apps, Silva said. At the very least, they might be inclined to purchase subscriptions for remote and mobile workers.

“It’s much more palatable for companies to pay the $6 per month to a trusted entity like Microsoft, knowing they’ll deliver the same experience and same document output on the PC and mobile devices,” Silva said.

All roads lead to Office 365

Microsoft finds itself in the difficult position of selling its software and services for multiple mobile platforms while also trying to drive adoption of its own platform. Office is largely seen as Microsoft’s biggest differentiator.

“Is document fidelity on Office going to be so good on these devices that it blows other options out of the water?” asked Brian Katz, director of mobile engineering for Sanofi, a global pharmaceutical company. “No one can answer that question yet.”

Microsoft Office for iOS is currently ready to go, but the company won't release it until the spring. The Android version is still in development and will tentatively become available in the late-spring/early-summer timeframe. Office is already available on Windows Phone and Windows tablets, and Microsoft's intention is to give its own platforms a small period of time to gain a foothold, according to the source with direct knowledge of the company's plans.  

“The original plan was to have fully fleshed-out versions for iOS and for Android that you could download and use, but they have changed their minds on that,” this source said. “So now what they are going to be are baby versions that allow you to read and/or do light editing.”

Microsoft wants to offer a product that doesn’t alienate Android and iOS users, but makes it difficult enough for them to be productive that they take another look at the Windows ecosystem, the source added. The ultimate goal is for Microsoft to push all users -- businesses and consumers alike -- towards Office 365.

But that approach could be disastrous for Microsoft, Robbins said. It's highly unlikely that iPad owners would sacrifice their investments in the device because its Office app doesn’t work well, he said.

“You can try one app after another until you find the one that works best for you,” he added. “There are lots of options out there for content creation. If Office delivers a subpar experience, people will drop it for something better. It’s not like they need IT departments to download apps or try things out.” 

Microsoft declined to comment on its plans for Office iOS and Android apps, other than to say Office will eventually be available on various mobile platforms.

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