updated 05:18 pm EDT, Thu March 27, 2014
Microsoft brings industry-standard document editing to iOS
Although a lot of apps have tried to fill the gap with degrees of success, there's always been an undercurrent of demand for a full-scale iPad version of Office. Even if you can escape using Office personally, it's the workplace standard -- it just makes sense to have the suite on the world's most popular tablet. Now Office for iPad is here, and it's time to share some first impressions.
I decided to start with with Word since it's the core of the entire Office suite, the one app everyone uses. Loading it up it's apparent that Microsoft means business -- on creating a document you're immediately provided with a wide array of templates, including ones with complex and/or graphically-intensive layouts. It's actually rather intimidating, but you can always go with a blank template if your needs aren't serious.
Document editing tools are likewise robust. Certainly the app is missing some of the more esoteric features you'd find in the Windows or Mac editions of Office, but as long as you have the patience, it's clear that you can produce a professional-quality document. There's a vast number of color, layout, shape, and font choices, and Microsoft has done its best to squeeze controls into a touch-friendly format that isn't claustrophobic. Manipulating text, tables, and imagery is almost by definition harder than with a mouse and keyboard, but it's also intuitive enough that I can see no problem editing or expanding on existing documents/templates. I'd just prefer to avoid creating something from scratch on an iPad unless it's basic.
In fact, the same interface -- a variation of the "ribbon" Microsoft uses on the desktop -- applies to Excel and PowerPoint as well, so there's not much point discussing them separately. The differences are in the functional details. Excel, for example, has assortment of preloaded formulas in categories like Financial and Math & Trig, more powerful table creation tools, and a unique calculator-style keyboard when generating numerical data. PowerPoint has dozens of transitions, and a sidebar that keeps every slide organized. It should be noted that like Word, Excel and PowerPoint also come with a healthy range of templates to start from.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of Office for iPad isn't so much the editing tools themselves as how documents are saved and managed. Whenever you save a file, each app asks if you want to save locally or to OneDrive. OneDrive is the default, and this makes the most sense; not only does it give you a cloud backup, but you can later edit the document from the desktop version of Office or a different mobile device, much like Apple's iWork. This also permits simultaneous collaboration by multiple people, though I wasn't able to test that this early on. It would be nice to be able to save to the cloud and a device simultaneously, but that would result in some unusual sync issues.
My bigger gripe is Microsoft's pricing scheme. The iPad apps are technically "free," but you can't do much more than view or share documents unless you have an Office 365 subscription. That normally costs $10 per month, which is a lot to spend when Apple's iWork suite is free and unlocked with any new iOS device. Microsoft has arguably produced a far more professional set of apps, but the average person may not need that much flexibility.
It'll take some time before I can form a final opinion about Office for iPad, I think. Suffice it to say that it's pretty comprehensive; before you take the plunge, you just need to consider how deeply attached you are to the Office format, and whether or not that's worth the cost of a monthly subscription.
by Roger Fingas