Does the iPad need Microsoft Office to succeed?

Editor’s Note: This story is excerpted from Computerworld. For more Mac coverage, visit Computerworld’s Macintosh Knowledge Center.

In producing a version of its iWork suite of apps for the iPad, Apple is sending a signal: The device won’t just be for watching video, playing games and reading books—although those are sure big reasons why many people will buy one next weekend. By announcing iWork for the iPad during the tablet’s unveiling in January, Apple clearly wanted to plant the idea of the iPad as a business and productivity device squarely in the minds of would-be buyers.

One of the questions that keeps coming up as the iPad’s April 3 launch nears is whether it will be a good fit for office use. While some analysts have raised questions about security and management issues with corporate or education uses, others have wondered what business and productivity apps might emerge, and which ones could mean success for the nascent tablet.

If the iPad is to find a niche in the workplace, much will depend on whether its iWork apps are business-oriented and whether any compatibility issues are addressed — for instance, can the iPad open Microsoft Office docs? Another big question: Will Microsoft produce some variation of Office for the iPad? And what about cloud-based applications like Google Docs or Microsoft’s Office Web Apps?

iWork for iPad—will it be enough?

Apple is clearly pitching iWork as a business and productivity suite for the iPad.

The Mac version of iWork offers most of the core features that a light business user would need from an office suite. It supports styled text, tracks changes and comments for collaborative work, and includes the vast majority of spreadsheet functions built into Excel. IWork ‘09 also includes support for importing and exporting documents in a variety of formats, including all recent versions of Office, and others like PDF and QuickTime movies.

While iWork on the Mac can deliver all this interpretability, it’s by no means certain that iWork on the iPad can do the same. In fact, perusing the iWork-related features pages on Apple’s iPad site raises doubts that iWork for iPad will measure up to the suite’s Mac-based sibling.

The page for Keynote (Apple’s take on PowerPoint) allows users to import PowerPoint and Keynote files and create new presentations on the iPad. When it comes to sharing files, this page lists only the ability to export presentations as Keynote for Mac files or as PDFs. The implication: You can import (and presumably edit as well as view) PowerPoint presentations, but you may not be able to save to that format without using Keynote on a computer.

The page for Numbers contains similar language, indicating that Numbers for iPad can import both Numbers for Mac and Excel spreadsheets but can only export data as Numbers files or PDFs. Working with Numbers is considerably different from working with Excel. Because of the big differences between the layout and presentation of data, this may actually be a good thing: It’ll be easier to see what the exported data will look like. See my previous reviews of iWork ’09 and iWork ’08 for details.

Pages, Apple’s word processing program, seems to fare better than the other two iWork apps on the iPad and is the only one that Apple is describing as capable not only of importing Word documents, but also exporting documents as Word files (in addition to Pages for Mac files and PDFs). That makes a certain amount of sense: Word-processing documents of any stripe mostly stick to styled text and images, not things like tables, formulas and animations.

It’s too early to tell for sure whether iWork for iPad will fit the bill for most users. But it’s likely that if you need to work with Word documents or their equivalent, Pages will be a fine choice. For presentations and spreadsheets, the proposition is dicier: While iWork for iPad may allow you to create visually impressive documents, you may face interoperability issues with non-iWork users.

Is Microsoft interested in being an iPad developer?

If iWork isn’t enough to satisfy business needs, the next logical question is whether Microsoft will deliver a solution. Microsoft has continued to update Office for Mac for decades. Typically, the Mac updates lag behind the updates to Office for Windows, but they do exist and offer both file and feature compatibility with Office for Windows users.

Microsoft, which produces few iPhone OS applications—the Bing search utility is the only one that comes immediately to mind—hasn’t given a sign either way regarding developing for the iPad. Given that the company is busy redefining its own mobile lineup with Windows Phone 7 Series and pushing ahead with Office 2010 for both Windows and Mac (and Office 2010 Web, which I’ll come back to later), it’s unlikely that Microsoft wants to offer software for a new device from Apple that has UI features and guidelines that are vastly different from anything it has developed for before.

Certainly, this isn’t a priority for now. But if the iPad proves itself popular, Microsoft will have an incentive to develop a version of Office for it, and possibly other apps as well. For the time being, iPad users will have to wait.

Other office suites for iPad

With Microsoft out of contention, is there potential for an Office-compatible suite for the iPad beyond iWork? Yes. There are already several such suites and apps available for the iPhone and iPod touch. They let you create, open/import, edit and export documents using the Office and iWork for Mac formats, along with other, less application-specific, formats like plain and rich text.

Among the handful of such offerings in the App Store, some, like MarinerCalc, provide one specific feature — in this case, spreadsheet functionality. Two App Store suites, however, come close to being full featured Office replacements: Quickoffice Mobile Office Suite (which comes in two flavors, a basic suite that allows viewing and editing of documents for $9.99 and the premium QuickOffice Connect for $14.99) and Dataviz’s Documents to Go (available in basic and premium editions for $9.99 and $14.99, respectively). Both allow you to view all major Office and iWork file formats and to create and edit (with formatted text) word processing documents and spreadsheets.

Documents to Go Premium also offers support for creating and editing Powerpoint presentations. (QuickOffice plans to offer this capability in a free update later this year.) The premium versions of both tools allow you to copy files between an iPhone or iPod touch and a computer or transfer files and collaborate using Google Docs. Quickoffice Connect also allows transfer and sharing of files through other online/cloud based services including Apple’s iDisk and DropBox.

There should be no doubt that both will be ported to the iPad fairly quickly. The iPhone version of these and other tools will already work on the iPad, but iPad-specific releases will likely add features, including the ability edit, create and view presentations.

As for pricing, Apple’s $30 price tag for the combination of all three iWork apps for the iPad looks like the figure other companies will want to match or beat.

Cloud options from Google, Microsoft and maybe even Apple

As I noted earlier, cloud computing offers another area for Office alternatives for the iPad. Driven largely by Google Docs, Web-based office suites are becoming more mainstream. Companies and schools are adopting enterprise versions of Google Docs as a replacement for both desktop office apps and server-based collaborative tools like Microsoft Exchange. These types of offerings could migrate to mobile devices like the iPad.

While there are a number of cloud-based possibilities, the obvious ones to consider from an iPad perspective include Google Docs, Microsoft’s Office 2010 Web and Apple’s

Google Docs is the best established of the online/cloud office suites. Accessible from any computer, Google Docs offers document sharing and collaboration, and it can import/export the standard Office file formats and deliver basic formatting options for each of those formats. Google Docs can be accessed in a read-only format using mobile Safari on the iPhone, so it seems likely that an iPad-specific Web interface could allow editing features. If so, Google Docs has a good shot at being a popular, free option for iPad users.

Office 2010 Web is another possibility. So far, the details about how it will work on different devices and browsers remain unknown. Much of Office 2010 Web is built around Microsoft’s Silverlight runtime environment, which is available for the major desktop computing platforms (including Mac OS X). However, given Apple’s anti-Flash stance regarding the iPhone and the iPad, apps that use their own runtime environments like Silverlight might not make the cut. So much for Office 2010 Web as an option.

Apple’s beta was introduced with iWork ’09 for Mac over a year ago. It isn’t a true cloud solution, since it’s aimed at sharing iWork documents with other people through a robust Web interface. That interface allows multiple users to add comments and notes to shared documents and download a shared document in iWork, Office or PDF formats.

Earlier this month, Apple modified to offer easier sharing of documents through social networking or other Internet services. It also updated the interface for accessing shared documents from an iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch, a change that should make accessing shared documents easier from Apple’s mobile devices. My sense is that the iWork apps on an iPad will allow for easy sharing of documents.

While offers a simple way to share documents, and it allows other users to view and comment on your work, it isn’t a true online office suite. So it will not be an office solution in itself. For the time being, that leaves Google Docs as the primary cloud-based Office alternative — for now.

Assuming Quickoffice, Documents To Go and other iPhone/iPad suites retain their interoperability with Google Docs, they could create an ecosystem very similar to what Apple seems to be aiming for with In fact, the added collaboration options could make the combination of these types of suites and Google Docs a compelling alternative to Office and even iWork.

Overall thoughts

While it’s too soon to know what Office-type suites will emerge as the best productivity options for the iPad, it seems clear that the device will, through one mechanism or another, be able to interoperate with Office and other productivity tools. That’s true for individual users as well as for the broader business/enterprise environment. While iWork for the iPad may be the only option available when the iPad becomes available on April 3, other choices will become available in short order, and perhaps some may be better business choices than iWork.

[Ryan Faas is a freelance writer and technology consultant specializing in Mac and multiplatform network issues. His most recent book isThe iPhone for Work, published by Apress.]

This story, "Does the iPad need Microsoft Office to succeed?" was originally published by Computerworld.

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