When Apple announced that its iWork suite would be bundled, free of charge, with new iOS and Mac devices, it seemingly slammed the door on Microsoft’s Office ambitions for the iPad. How could Microsoft bring its pricey Office suite into a world of free (and almost free) apps?
The answer: Outdo iWork in both form and function. Apple aims to make Pages, Numbers, and Keynote the most beautiful office software for iPad and other Apple devices. With Office for iPad, Microsoft bids to steal that crown.
Microsoft’s Office for iPad is a collection of three apps: Word, PowerPoint, and Excel. (OneNote for the iPad has been available since 2011, and Microsoft's Lync, Skype, and Yammer are also available.) Users can download each for free from the App Store to an iPad running iOS 7.0 or above. And each of those free apps can be used to view documents that have been created elsewhere.
However, to create or edit documents with the Office for iPad apps, you must subscribe to Office 365: either Office 365 Home Premium ($9.99 per month), the upcoming Office 365 Personal ($6.99 per month), or one of several business options. Each Office 365 subscription includes at least one tablet subscription, which covers Office for iPad. Office 365 also includes a subscription to OneDrive, Microsoft’s cloud-storage solution, a central repository from which one can withdraw and store documents. In a nice twist, you can connect both your personal OneDrive and OneDrive for Business accounts, and access files from SharePoint.
What makes Office for iPad so important, naturally, is that one can actually do something with the document, rather than hunt and peck at it, as one must in Office Mobile on a smartphone.
Built for touch from the ground up
According to Michael Atalla, director of product management for Office, Office for iPad represents neither a “blown-up” Office Mobile for iPhone nor a stripped-down Office for Windows, but rather a custom version of Office designed expressly for the iPad.
I completely agree. Office for iPad represents the distilled Office experience, poured into an iOS glass. Quite frankly, I prefer it to working in Office on the desktop, if only because Microsoft organizes the most commonly-used functions so intuitively, using an icon-driven ribbon at the top of the screen. In Word, for example, Office for iPad preserves the footnoting capability but cuts out the Mailings and References headings. Chances are you won’t miss them.
Working with text in Office for iPad should be intuitive to anyone who has used iOS: Tapping once on a word moves the cursor to that location; tapping twice creates the slider bars for highlighting a block of text. Pressing and releasing brings up a set of options to select or insert text. Holding down your finger brings up the zoom or spyglass icon. (Atalla said that Microsoft developed an elongated, widened zoom that highlighted a word. All I saw was the default circular view, however.)
For most of my testing, I paired an iPad Air with a Pi Dock-It Pro keyboard case from Parle Innovation, but I also found myself banging away on the tablet itself. Touch is simply so intuitive for moving images around and resizing PowerPoint slide headings, especially as the text realigns itself to flow around the newly-sized art. It’s not perfect: I ran into situations where I almost had to tap randomly to select a field, then edit the text within it. But eventually I was able to accomplish what I set out to do.
Functionality preserved, mostly
Occasionally Microsoft will get too cute, however. Take find-and-replace, a fairly common function. In the desktop version of Word, typing a quick keyboard shortcut automatically brings up the Find and Replace menu. In Office for iPad, however, there are no keyboard shortcuts. And to find a word, you’ll need to tap the magnifying-glass Search icon at the top right, then tap the settings gear to the far left. Only then will you find the replace function you were looking for. It’s not totally unintuitive, but it is a bit awkward nevertheless.
In general, Office for iPad retains some of the value-added features that have become associated with Office, including the ability to track changes and to co-author documents. Tracking changes, for its part, takes up the bulk of the Review menu in Word for iPad and seems especially well implemented.
And in Excel Online, the default options for Home appear to exceed what Microsoft has built into Excel for iPad, including the “tell me what you want to do” search box. In fact, there’s no obvious help functionality in Office for iPad at all. (It's there, though: Click the autosave button in the top left corner to see a Help and Support option.)
But from a feature perspective, comparing Microsoft’s Office Web Apps and Office for iPad reveals that the tablet app is just a few steps up from the Web-based app. In the online version of Word, for example, you have the ability to add a shape or a footnote to a selected piece of text. This function isn't available in the iPad version, but everything else remains the same between the two. Like Word Online, there’s spell-checking, but no grammar checker or thesaurus. Power users will find that some of the more sophisticated section-formatting options aren't available.
On the other hand, some lovely little touches offset those omissions. For example, Microsoft built a custom keypad into Excel to smooth data entry and speed the entry of formulas. For that matter, the formulas (not functions, as Excel Online calls them) are neatly organized by category, similar to how the desktop version of Excel organizes them. Again, the templates (16 in Excel for iPad) prove exceedingly useful, as do the default options for charts and graphs.
A solid tablet tool
Traditionally, Office Web Apps (now Office Online) felt a bit like Charlie Brown trying to kick the football: Just when a particular feature was desperately needed, Microsoft would try to upsell you to its full-fledged Office suite. I never ran into that in Office for iPad, nor did I run into too many situations where it simply couldn’t perform a basic but vital task.
I haven’t yet spent enough time with Office for iPad alongside the Apple iWork suite to definitively give one suite the edge over the other. My initial impression, however, is that you’ll prefer Word for iPad over Pages, with perhaps a slight edge to Excel over Numbers, as well. I’ve always been very impressed with Keynote, however, and I suspect that most iPad users will prefer to stick with it.
Nevertheless, kudos to the Office for iPad team. I think they’ve created a suite of “free” apps as good or better than anything Apple has created.
Correction: An Office 365 subscription is needed to create as well as edit documents on Office for iPad.
Updated at 7:15 p.m. PT with a video report from IDG News Service.
This story, "First look: Microsoft Office for iPad takes aim at iWork" was originally published by PCWorld.