How much will Office for iPad actually help Microsoft? (Hint: Less than you think)

excel on ipad

It took a few years of denials and rumors but Microsoft Office for iPad is officially available. The company debuted the software for free on the iTunes App Store on Thursday with the news coming from Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella in his first public appearance as the company’s leader. The free version allows for viewing Word documents, Excel spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations; file creation and editing capabilities will cost you in the form of a Microsoft subscription plan.

I haven’t installed the software yet on my iPad. I did check out some of the early reviews and images, however. The software looks visually excellent and feature filled; it should since the app was built from the ground up and not just a simple port of Microsoft Office for iPhone, noted Ina Fried from Re/code. So with a subscription plan and support on one of the best-selling tablets, Microsoft has a winning formula, right?

Not so fast.

Sooner rather than later would have been better

There’s definitely some upside for Microsoft here, but I’d argue that it’s pretty limited. Had Office for iPad come to market two years ago, I’d be more optimistic. But since the iPad debut in 2010, a plethora of productivity suites launched for Apple’s tablet.

iwork_20100127

There’s Apple’s own iWorks suite, which went free for all new devices purchased since September, and has only improved since the iPad launch. Days after I got my first iPad that year, I found Office 2 Pro, which later became Office 2 HD and is now Citrix ShareFile QuickEdit; the software works with Google Docs and has advanced functionality that may rival Microsoft’s own software. Add in QuickOffice HD, Dataviz Documents to Go or any other similar product and you can see it’s a crowded market now.

Choice of clouds is heavenly

Interestingly all of the rival products have a bit more flexibility when it comes to data storage. Microsoft’s Office for iPad works with OneDrive, formerly known as SkyDrive, and SharePoint. Look at the other products and you’ll typically see far more choices for document storage and sharing such as iCloud, Dropbox, Google Drive, Box, SugarSync and so on.

Will many iPad owners want to have their document storage locked to a Microsoft server? I’m skeptical that many will. Most of these products support printing too; that’s a feature surprisingly not yet available in Office for iPad.

The target audience may have already paid for this product

If that wasn’t enough to dim prospects, I think this point in Engadget’s Office for iPad review hits the heart of the matter:

“Office for iPad is not for iPad users looking for a productivity suite; it’s for Office customers who happen to own an iPad. Until Microsoft’s apps are free for all, Apple will continue to have the home-court advantage on iOS devices, if only because its apps don’t cost anything. With so many free alternatives (all of which can open Office files), we’re not sure why someone would pay for Office if they weren’t already locked in with Microsoft.”

Some Apple iPad owners who are already Office customers likely already subscribe to Office 365 so getting Office on their iPad is nice a bonus. But it doesn’t put any more money in Microsoft’s bank account: There’s five computer limit on the $9.95 monthly ($99.95 yearly) Office 365 subscription and it works with five tablets as well. Microsoft doesn’t get anything from these people, then.

powerpoint on ipad

 

So that means the company is hoping to gain new Office 365 subscribers. That’s a great idea but Office for iPad has to be tremendously better than the incumbent alternatives — that may have already been purchased, mind you — to justify a new monthly subscription. For some, I’m sure it will. But for most iPad owners? I’m doubtful.

Office for iPad and Surface 2 in the office

The irony here is that Microsoft’s own tablet, the Surface 2, has now lost one of its key advantages: Office exclusivity. With Office for iPad available, one of the more compelling sales points to buy a Surface 2 is now a moot point. And to be honest, I’m not sure the Office exclusive really helped Surface tablet sales to begin with; there’s certainly no evidence suggesting it.

word on ipad

So again, what does Microsoft gain? In this particular aspect, it may actually lose more than it benefits as there’s one less reason to buy a Microsoft Surface 2. Ironically, this all follows just a day after Microsoft pointed out three business benefits of its tablet that actually apply to Google’s Chromebooks as well.

Perhaps Office isn’t all it’s cracked up to be these days; had Microsoft delivered the product sooner, it might have reaped far bigger benefits. Or maybe I’m just missing the magical powers of Office for iPad. Chime in and comment to let me know if you’re planning to pay up and use Office on your iPad.

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