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Office for iPad: Free — Sort of!

As most of you know, Microsoft is not nearly as flexible or successful as Apple in keeping secrets. Sure, news about an upcoming Apple gadget will usually leak from the supply chain, but software releases tend to get a higher level of protection from the teeming masses of tech journalists and financial analysts.

Of course, secrets encourage the media to just make things up, using their perceptions about Apple as a basis for guessing what they’re working on.

With Microsoft, rumors about a forthcoming Office for iPad release have come and gone and come again. Some of the stories suggest the software has been ready for several years, awaiting approval from the executive team for release. But former CEO Steve Ballmer reportedly opposed the move.

In addition, there was a huge detour: With the arrival of the Surface tablet, Microsoft touted the presence of Office on both the ARM-based RT and Intel based Pro versions as an advantage over other tablets. This supposed advance, such as it was, wasn’t quite what it seemed to be. You see, there is still no version of Office that’s compliant with the Modern or Metro UI. It’s basically just the same old Office 2013 release for desktop PCs that’s running from the desktop layer.

Regardless, people aren’t buying. The Surface tablet has been one huge failure for Microsoft, and the Office advantage was no advantage at all. Some estimates claim that Microsoft is losing out on billions of dollars in potential revenue by not delivering an iPad version.

Well, it appears Microsoft’s new CEO, Satya Nadella, has provided a dose of sanity. In a special media event in San Francisco, Microsoft announced Office for the iPad. Indeed,  Windows 8, considered a disaster for the company, wasn’t even on the agenda, and that clearly sends a strong message about the company’s future direction.

The iPad app suite is available in a sort of freemium arrangement. You can download a copy the iPad versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint free from the App Store and open and view documents. If you want to actually create and edit documents, you need to subscribe to Office 365. Pricing depends on the package that best meets your needs, but the Home version is $9.99 a month, and includes support for up to five Macs and PCs and a single tablet.

Of course, if you already have an Office 365 license, the unlocked iPad version is free. Whether Microsoft earns more revenue from this product largely depends on how many additional signups the iPad version generates. Unlike Adobe, you can still buy retail copies of Microsoft’s traditional Mac and PC apps. You aren’t forced to subscribe to the cloud-based account.

Certainly the decision to release Office for the iPad couldn’t come at a better time. PC sales are down and Microsoft’s efforts to go mobile have been largely stillborn. Even the purchase of the failed handset division of Nokia isn’t expected to change the situation. Consider what happened when Google bought another failing handset company, Motorola Mobility, and you’ll see what I mean.

Meantime, Office for the iPad is already garnering favorable reviews. The ZDNet division of CNET says the suite “sets the gold standard for tablet productivity.”

That’s high praise, because there are already a number of office-style app suites on iOS and Android. The standard bearer is Apple’s iWork, which offers essentially the same feature set on the Mac, iOS and cloud-based versions. What this means is that, if you have an iCloud account and use a Windows PC, you can still use iWork and share your documents with users on the other platforms. It’s also free with a new Apple gadget, which may be the most compelling sales pitch of all.

So why should anyone who isn’t already an Office 365 subscriber take the plunge just to be able to take advantage of the full feature set of Office for the iPad? Is it really that good?

Here Microsoft may have miscalculated by assuming that iPad users already have a Mac or a PC, and thus the iPad represents just another device. But more and more people rely on an iPad as their primary personal computer, and they are going to be decidedly reluctant to pay $100 a year forever to get a fully-enabled copy of Office. Remember, iWork is free. Does Office’s enhanced feature set and superior compatibility with the Mac and Windows versions deserve a higher standalone price? Time will tell.

As most of you know, Microsoft has had a mixed reputation with Mac apps. While paying lip service to Mac interface conventions, even such features as Auto Save and Versions have yet to be supported. When you work in an Office app, you sometimes think you’re really using something actually meant for Windows, but clumsily ported to the Mac platform. The document windows may seem Mac-like, but the features carry the awkwardness of Windows.

But when it comes to tablets, Microsoft is in a new world. There is no Windows equivalent, and thus Microsoft had to rely on Apple’s development tools to build the product. For the most part, it seems successful at first blush.

So Microsoft claims that Office for the iPad was built from the ground up. From the look and the feel, it does seem a clever adaptation of Office conventions slimmed down and styled for tablet use. Most of the reviews talk of a fast and fluid user experience, though some of the more obscure features found even in Office for the Mac won’t be supported, though that probably doesn’t matter. What’s more, there appears to be decent cloud integration, meaning you can pick up where you left off on an Office document from another platform and continue your work on your iPad.

Microsoft’s target audience is no doubt the business world, which has embraced the iPad with a passion. This is where Microsoft is apt to gain a number of users, but if these companies already have Office 365 licenses, it won’t matter. If they haven’t embraced the cloud yet, there could be a sizable rate of customer conquests. I’m sure Microsoft’s marketing people have been busy crunching the numbers and considering the possibilities.

What’s important for Microsoft is the user license. Surface has done nothing for them, and if Apple can deliver substantial new revenues to its sometimes rival, that works to the advantage of both. Meanwhile, the Office for iPad apps quickly rose to the top of the charts at the App Store. Let’s see how it stands once the early adopters have their copies, and how that impacts the Office 365 signup rate.

If Office for the iPad does well, will that speed up development of Office 2014 for the Mac? I suppose we’ll know soon.