Microsoft quandary: Can Windows-first policy work in the iPad era?

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A report that Microsoft will hold back on Office for iPad and Android devices until it’s safely ensconced on Windows 8 tablets and Windows phones illustrates Microsoft’s quandary in the tablet age.

On the one hand, Microsoft has a vested interest in making Office ubiquitous — it is by far the dominant desktop productivity suite and is a cash cow for the company. On the other, Microsoft hopes to use Office to bolster its thus-far weak smartphone and tablet story. In that segment it wants to push Windows 8 as a strong competitor to Apple’s iOS and Android, and Office has always been the killer app (or apps) for Windows. Note: Microsoft has never officially acknowledged any Office-for-iPad or Android plans, and even denied such plans, but leaks have been fast and furious over the past few months. The conventional wisdom is that Microsoft ignores the iPad at its own peril and so must address it with Office in some form.

According to Friday’s TechTarget report:

Initially, Microsoft planned to introduce versions of Office 15 for all three platforms. But according to sources familiar with the company’s strategy, Microsoft will now ship the long-awaited application suite sometime in October for Windows devices, most notably the upcoming versions of Windows Phone, and hold off on selling Office for iOS and Android devices until next spring.

The debate over whether Microsoft should or should not field Office on the hot-selling iPad, shows the line Microsoft must tread. At a time when it’s trying to show Windows Azure as a more cross-platform cloud that will store and manage everyone’s data — regardless of the endpoints — the fact remains that the company sees Office as its cash cow and it also knows that it has a ton of ground to make up in mobile devices and smartphones where it will push Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 hard against iOS and Android.

Withholding Office from iPad: Who gets hurt?

Tier 1 analyst Carl Brooks said this Windows first strategy is nutty in this day and age. “Microsoft wants to own user data in Office across the clients and in the cloud obviously. But this is a fight Apple’ s going to win on its own platform,” he said. “Microsoft can obviously deliver a better experience on Windows devices, but waiting too long or restricting Office to Windows would be suicide. I can already read .docs and .ppts on my iPhone and it gets easier all the time,” he said.

The better tack would be for Microsoft to give all mobile users a very cheap Office client and use that to woo them, he said. “If they think they can sell $100 Office licenses to iPad and tablet users, they’re bananas.”

There are also other third-party ways from IonGridOnLive and CloudOn to deliver Office to iPads.

David Linthicum, CTO and co-founder of Blue Mountain Labs, said by holding back on Office, Microsoft could hurt both its cloud and its Office story by giving people a reason to check out Google Docs or Zoho or another cloud-based productivity suite that competes with Office 365, Microsoft’s cloud-based Office implementation.

“This just shows Microsoft is up to its old tricks,” he said, “making sure that they  promote their platform in any way they can. However, not supporting popular devices could lead many enterprises to phase out Office and thus Windows. Many will opt for existing cloud-delivered Office productivity tools,” he said.

One thing is for sure, while Microsoft has a better tablet and smartphone story in its upcoming Windows 8, moves like this could handicap its overall cloud and applications strategy.

Feature photo courtesy of Flickr user Sean MacEntee

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