Business

Microsoft Office is just what the iPad needs

Editor’s Note: The following article is reprinted from the Net Work blog at PCWorld.com.

The iPad is “magic” and all that, but it is not without its flaws and weaknesses—many of which I expect Apple will address with the next incarnation of the tablet device. However, for those looking to use the current generation iPad as a mobile business tool, Microsoft may be the hero with Docs.com.

I have been using the iPad as my primary mobile computing platform for over a month now. I purchased the various iWork for iPad apps—the harbingers of productivity when first announced by Apple. After putting them to the test in the real world, though, I find them lacking and severely handicapped compared to “real” office productivity software like the Microsoft Office 2010 I use every day on my Windows 7 notebook.

The Microsoft and PC purists will, of course, question why I even have an iPad then. Why not simply use the more robust, more functional, more capable Windows 7 notebook, and stick with Office 2010? Fair question, so here is the answer. The iPad weighs about a third of what my notebook weighs, is only about a quarter of the thickness, has four to five times the battery life, yet is still capable of meeting 90 percent of my mobile computing needs.

But, there is still that nagging 10 percent. Since the Apple apps intended to provide office productivity on the go have limited functionality and “file management” that is probably the least intuitive thing ever to be devised by Apple, I decided to look elsewhere.

I admit that I have not fully embraced the cloud. I have used cloud-based services, and I have cloud-based data storage accounts, but I use them on an as needed-basis, not as my primary means of productivity. But, with the iPad it occurred to me that a device built for mobility should be an ideal platform for working with the cloud.

Or not. I launched my trusty Google app and tapped Docs, but it detects that I am using the iPhone OS and automatically redirects me to the mobile version of the Google Docs site. What that means is that I can view all of the files available to me in Google Docs, but I can’t edit them, or create new docs. Actually, there is one caveat to that—the spreadsheet program does allow you to add or modify cells, but in a limited way.

According to the Official Google Mobile Blog, Gmail has been tweaked to take advantage of the iPad, but the other Google offerings not so much. I asked Google if there are any plans to update Google Docs to work with the iPad, and a Google spokesperson responded to say “We’re continually working on better ways to display our Web apps on the iPad and other devices. Many people such as yourself have noticed that we display the mobile version of Google Docs on the iPad. We made individual decisions for each of Google’s Web applications using the iPad Simulator, and served the version we think works best in each case. We chose mobile for Docs, because Safari on the iPad doesn’t support the same things as Safari on the desktop.”

Granted, Google did not say they are not working on resolving any issues and providing Google Docs on the iPad, but the response was a bit elusive, and also does not say Google will update Google Docs to work with the iPad. The implication seems to be that its Apple’s fault for using a limited version of the Safari Web browser on the iPad.

C’est la vie. Next, I moved on to testing out Microsoft Office 2010 Web apps. No luck there either. But, then I remembered that Microsoft just recently introduced a different Web-based version of Microsoft Office—Docs.com.

It turns out that Docs.com is also flaky on the iPad. The link is there to “Add a Doc”, but when I try to add a Word doc it freezes the Safari browser up for a minute or two. When it is “working”, I can click around in the menu bar, but tapping on the blank page does not launch the virtual keyboard, so there is no way to actually type text.

My experience with PowerPoint in Docs.com was similar to my experience with Word. I can add slides, change the format of the slides, add Smart Art, and change the color scheme of the Smart Art—but unfortunately tapping on text areas does not launch the virtual keyboard, so I couldn’t actually enter text.

Ironically, like with the Google Docs spreadsheet, the one app that seems to work is Excel. Tapping on a cell does launch the virtual keyboard and it seems that the menu and formatting options are all functional.

So, as of today, there is no great solution. The iWork for iPad apps lack the features and functions that mobile business professionals need, and both Google Docs and Microsoft’s Docs.com don’t seem to play nice with the iPad—unless you only need to work with spreadsheets.

Here is the glimmer of hope, though. When I asked Microsoft if there are any plans to fix Docs.com so that it will work with the iPad I got the following response from Pat Kinsel, program manager at Microsoft FUSE Labs: “It is our goal for Docs to integrate seamlessly with the iPad. However, given that the iPad launched late during our development cycle, we are just now able to focus our attention to a few outstanding issues. At present, the iPad works well for viewing documents. We are working on the ability to type/add text which we hope will be resolved shortly.”

As far as I am concerned, this will be the ideal solution. If Docs.com works on the iPad, I can create, view, and edit documents using the iPad on native Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel, and Microsoft PowerPoint apps that mirror the standards and conventions I am used to. Then, when I return to my desk I can simply click on “Open in Word” or “Open in Excel” and launch the file in the full Microsoft Office 2010 application if I happen to need any features or functions missing in Docs.com.

Microsoft did not provide any other estimate or timeline aside from “shortly”. My version of shortly is next quarter. Hopefully Microsoft’s version of shortly doesn’t translate to FY2012 or something crazy.

Microsoft, I’ll be waiting.

[You can follow Tony on his Facebook page, or contact him by e-mail.]

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