Office on the iPad is better but still not good enough

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer is fooling himself when saying iOS version of Office isn't needed, thanks to Office Web Apps

The blogosphere has been abuzz for months about rumors that Microsoft would release Office for iPad this month. But last week, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer told Bloomberg News that it was "unnecessary" to provide an iOS version of the world's most-used office productivity suite. After all, he said, users can run Office Web Apps, which was released in the fall, in the iPad's Safari browser instead to get the editing capabilities they need.

Using the 2011 version of Office Web Apps on the iPad -- indeed, on anything but a Windows PC -- was extremely painful and ultimately fruitless, so I decided to put Ballmer's claims to the test and see if Microsoft this time had a workable Web version for iPad users. For grins, I also tested it on a Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 running Android 4.1 "Jelly Bean."

[ The iPad can be a great productivity tool, if you use InfoWorld's picks for the best office iPad apps. We've also selected the best Android productivity apps. | Keep up on key mobile developments and insights with the Mobilize newsletter. ]

iPad running Excel via Office Web Apps
An iPad running Excel via Office Web Apps in the Safari browser

Office Web Apps this time does work on the iPad
The good news is you can now actually use Office Web Apps on your iPad via the Safari browser (go to skydrive.live.com and sign in via your SkyDrive or Microsoft ID). You get the basic editing controls in Word, Excel, and Office needed for many documents, making Office Web Apps appropriate for touchup work. You don't get revisions tracking in Word -- a huge omission. PowerPoint supports all sorts of animation and transition effects, but you can't insert graphics from your iPad or even from your SkyDrive account. It was also disconcerting to see the menu bar fly offscreen any time I was using the onscreen keyboard, forcing me to hide the keyboard to access menu options.

Also, you can't print documents via AirPrint, but you can create a preview PDF that you open in iOS's Quick Look facility and print from there. It'll do, but it's a workaround to what should exist natively.

Office Web Apps works with documents only on SkyDrive, so you can't access files stored on other cloud storage services or stored locally on your iPad from it. The iOS SkyDrive app does share files with other iOS apps via the iOS Open In facility, so you can copy files from other apps (such as Photos, Dropbox, Box, Mail, GoodReader, Office2HD, and Apple's iWork suite), but not from Quickoffice or Google Drive, which don't support Open In or SkyDrive direct access. But having to switch between Office Web Apps in Safari and the SkyDrive app is a clunky method to access files.

As a Web app, Office Web Apps requires an Internet connection if you want to use it on your iPad, which means there are plenty of times you can't use it. Plus, Office Web Apps is fairly slow even on a decent broadband network; this goes for both computers and iPads. There were often noticeable lags when opening menus or accessing files. On a cellular connection, Office Web Apps is often unusably slow.

Still, with a little patience, Office Web Aps was surprisingly capable and usable on the iPad's screen -- not what I expected from a company traditionally hostile to foreign platforms.

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