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Follow-me data vendors to offer mobile Office suite integration

Storage and file-sync vendors Accellion, ShareFile and Box will add mobile Office suite features to their mobile apps by year's end.

While Microsoft continues to hold out on an Office for iOS app, three prominent enterprise Dropbox alternatives that have emerged this year give users the ability to work with Office documents on mobile devices securely.

The roundtrip process of opening a file out of a storage app into an editing app and then saving it back into that original app can result in data leakage or sensitive files being cached locally on mobile devices. Preventing that would be hugely beneficial to IT departments and end users alike, said Gavin Gray, CIO at Perkins Coie, an international law firm headquartered in Seattle.

The lawyers at Perkins Coie generate an overwhelming amount of content that needs to be archived and secured because of industry regulations. That would be easy to do if those lawyers were content with working from a single desktop, but the majority of them live on their mobile devices, Gray said.

"We have to figure out ways to extend that content to where they want to work -- which is on their iPads -- but in a way where that content is safe and secure," Gray said. "The other thing is our lawyers don't want extra steps in their workflow."

New file-sharing software that lets end users work with Microsoft Office documents on their mobile devices could be the answer.

Microsoft mobile Office suites merge with file-syncing and storage apps

Industry watchers said the merger of storage and productivity suites began when Google merged its Drive and Docs tools into an integrated suite on the Web. Now three vendors that want to fill the need for a secure mobile Office app are taking that same approach.

Accellion, a storage and file-sync service with both on-premises and cloud deployment models, will release the Accellion Mobile Productivity Suite once Apple approves the new version of Accellion's iOS application, expected in early March.

The new app will give users a central location to access files, edit them with familiar Office features -- such as track changes, comments and spellcheck -- create new Office documents for Word, Excel, OneNote and PowerPoint, and even securely email links to files from the Accellion container using Outlook contacts.

The productivity suite will be an added feature to a customer's existing Accellion installation. Today, the suite is only available for iOS devices, but an Android version is on the roadmap. The company didn't disclose how much extra the productivity suite would cost, but plans start at $15 per user per month for 500 users. End-user license agreements scale from there, depending on added features and the number of users.

Citrix Systems Inc. will unveil a similar Office editing and creation feature next month for ShareFile's iOS mobile app. It will be a free upgrade for existing customers, according to Bernardo de Albergaria, Citrix's vice president of collaboration line of business. Users will be able to natively edit and create documents without ever having to leave the secured ShareFile container. ShareFile plans for businesses start at $5 per user per month.

IT can enforce policies to restrict the use of third-party editing suites as a means of maintaining a single version of the document. Users have the ability to mark folders for offline access so they can work on documents despite a lack of connectivity.

Box, another enterprise-friendly storage and file-sharing company, will unveil a product called Box Notes by the end of 2013, said Robin Daniels, Box's head of enterprise product management, at a recent customer event in Boston.

Instead of going the Microsoft Office or Google Docs routes like Citrix and Accellion, Box Notes will be a feature more akin to Evernote's simple note-taking, Web-clipping and sharing product. The idea is to deliver a productivity tool tailored to the rapid, in-and-out experience of mobile devices, Daniels said.

Box Notes will also have deeper integration with the next version of Box Edits, a feature released last year to give users the ability to make quick updates to stored Office files. Box business plans, which include free native mobile apps, start at $15 per user per month for up to 500 users.

The ability to sync files across devices is still the lynchpin for mobile productivity, so it makes sense that document creation and editing would be the next iteration of mobile storage apps, Daniels said.

Microsoft Office apps: The elephant in the mobile room

Meanwhile, Microsoft has yet to offer its popular productivity suite on mobile platforms outside of Windows Phone. Though it has Microsoft Office apps for iOS devices ready to release, the company has only made its cloud-based Office365 suite available for Android and iOS users, minus a few apps, such as SkyDrive and OneNote.

The problem with that decision is that the user experience of Office365 on mobile devices isn't worth the $99 per year it costs to subscribe to the service, especially when compared to native mobile apps such as CloudOn, QuickOffice and now bundled productivity suites from storage vendors that offer the same functionality, according to Benjamin Robbins, a principal at enterprise mobility consulting Palador Inc. in Seattle.

That decision could cost Microsoft upwards of $2.5 billion per year, according to previously published reports. The longer Microsoft takes to release native Office apps on other mobile platforms, combined with competitors filling the void with feature-rich products, the less relevant Microsoft appears in the mobile space, said Chris Silva, a mobile analyst with the Altimeter Group, a research firm based in San Mateo, Calif.

One only needs to contrast Microsoft's approach to mobile with Google's, which has released native mobile apps for its productivity tools across various mobile operating systems, Silva noted. "There will be loyal Microsoft Office desktop users, but people have realized that you don't need it to be productive," he added.

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