So there have been occasional published reports that Microsoft is working on an iOS version of Office. According to the original rumors, it would have arrived by now. There’s yet another claim that Office will arrive for iOS and Android in the near future.
The latest claim came from a Microsoft product manager working in the Czech Republic, with the promise of a November release, so you’d have to think the story has some credence. The mobile Office would supposedly also be available in versions for Windows RT, the ARM-based version of Windows 8, Windows Phone and Symbian too. But not BlackBerry, evidently. Microsoft clearly wants to spread the love. But they have since walked back their product manager’s claim, asserting that the app suite is due to arrive by March of 2013.
From a practical marketing standpoint, the plan would seem to make plenty of sense. Microsoft’s own mobile platforms remain essentially stillborn, but if hundreds of millions of iOS and Android users can get the suite, that creates a huge new market for Microsoft.
The question would be whether the mobile version of Office would work pretty much the same on all platforms, or have features that are tailor-made for the capabilities of a particular OS. Sure, Microsoft would probably want to offer the most feature-complete versions for Windows RT, and Windows Phone. This is little different from the approach taken with the Windows and Mac versions of Office. You can bet that Mac users will never get everything, although Office for the Mac may otherwise be a superior product.
But the mobile Office is going to be severely constrained by the limits of different mobile platforms. It’s almost the same as having a cross-OS code base for Windows and the Mac. Indeed, Android is going to present a special problem, because so few Android smartphones and tablets run the latest OS versions. So Microsoft would be forced to dumb down Office accordingly. But would that mean that all versions of mobile Office would cater to a single lowest common denominator? That approach would shortchange users big time, and reduce the prospects for success.
Or does Microsoft somehow believe that the mere presence of Office on a mobile platform would be sufficient to fuel great sales? On the iOS, for example, Microsoft would have to consider the office suite that’s already there, which is iWork. Yes, Pages, Numbers, and Keynote may offer the most used features of a productivity suite. But, in addition to compatibility with an industry-standard, Microsoft Office offers tons of features, useful or otherwise, that Apple makes no attempt to duplicate. For regular people, it may not matter so much. But I have used Word for over 20 years as a freelance writer. Publishers, except for a few that have custom content management systems, expect Word compatability.
It’s not just being able to open Word files in, for example, Pages, or PowerPoint files in Keynote. In Word, for example, many editors use Track Changes, which makes it easy to keep tabs on the ongoing changes to a document. Pages offers Track Changes as well, but Apple’s version is, unfortunately, only partly compatible with Word. I don’t know why. Perhaps it’s a matter of time, resources, and the need to reverse engineer what may be a proprietary format. I won’t enter into the developer discussion, unless Apple plans on fleshing out the feature in a future version of iWork. Remember it’s called iWork 09 for a reason.
But don’t forget that Track Changes doesn’t exist on Pages for the iOS. You only get a basic set of word processing features that mirror some of the capabilities of the desktop version. The same will be true for mobile Office, and where the cut and slash will take place isn’t certain, but the best virtues of Office may be lost in the translation.
The larger question, however, is whether Microsoft stands a chance to gain a decent market share with this venture. I can see the wisdom in terms of wanting to spread the joy to all the major mobile operating systems. I don’t see, however, that loads of customers will be lining up to buy crippled versions of Office, and whether Microsoft expects to offer a unified feature set for everyone. That would mean that all the best features of, for example, the iOS, won’t be supported. But I suppose Android users would have a comparable complaint.
On the other hand, wouldn’t Microsoft do better to restrict Office to their own platforms, and use that fact as leverage to grow market share? Right now, Microsoft has failed to make the argument for Windows Phone. The decision to block recent smartphones from upgrading to Windows Phone 8 was a perfectly foolish decision. While I understand why Microsoft may want to have Office everywhere, I cannot think of a single reason why I’d consider buying a copy.