At last: Office comes to iPad, a sure sign that the times are changing at Microsoft

ipad air wide

Microsoft plans to officially launch the long-awaited version of Office for iPad next week in San Francisco, sources confirmed Tuesday morning.

On Monday, Microsoft notified reporters of an event to be hosted by new CEO Satya Nadella in San Francisco March 27. Topic? “News related to the intersection of cloud and mobile.”

The timing is interesting. The coming-out party is taking place the week before Microsoft’s Build Conference, also in San Francisco, but a day after planned Google and AWS cloud events in that city that are drawing reporters from around the country.

Satya Nadella, Microsoft CEO

Satya Nadella, Microsoft CEO

Reports of this project have circulated for at least two years. Given that Apple schooled Microsoft on tablets with the wildly popular iPad, though — and Microsoft’s former CEO Steve Ballmer once pretended to stomp an  iPhone to death on stage and told reporters he would not allow his children to use Macs or iPhones — support for the rival platform was clearly a risky position to take internally. Up till now, anyway.

This looks to be the beginning of a bigger cross-platform mobile push for Microsoft. CRN reported Monday that Microsoft is in talks to acquire Xamarin, a San Francisco company with technology that enables developers to write iOS or Android code using Microsoft tools.

In a research note, Nomura Securities analyst Rick Sherlund, said this is pretty much all good for Microsoft. While most iPad or Android tablet users are happy with the lightweight apps that run on those devices — Evernote et al. — many are also professionals who rely on business apps, particularly spreadsheets — where Microsoft Excel still rules. Office for iPad — and then probably Android — could keep those users on the reservation — and give them a reason to re-up their enterprise licenses.

Sherlund wrote:

 “To put this in perspective, it is clearly a directional or strategic benefit to Microsoft that the company is moving Office beyond PCs and Windows to faster growth platforms and cloud services.”

To be fair, Microsoft was already pushing pen-enabled tablets well before the iPad debuted in 2010. Former top exec Jeff Raikes was toting tablets  years before he left the company in 2008. But those systems never took hold the way iPad did.

Office, which runs on Windows and Mac OS,  has long dominated the market for desktop productivity applications — spreadsheets, word processing, presentations — but faces heated competition from Google Apps.

Note: This story was updated  at 8:50 a.m. PDT to include analyst quotes and again noting Microsoft’s interest in Xamarin.

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