Microsoft builds Office app for iPhone -- hell refreezes

Microsoft's delivery of OneNote to iOS could hint at more Office apps to come for non-Windows phones

Back in 2003, Apple surprised the world with the release of iTunes for Windows. Apple itself demonstrated tongue-in-cheek surprise, declaring that hell had frozen over.

Once again, hell has turned icy or at least considerably chilled. Microsoft today released, for the first time, an application from its Office suite for the iPhone -- specifically, OneNote, a multipurpose app for planning, note taking, and information gathering. Users can sync OneNote notebooks via Windows Live SkyDrive or access notes online via Office Web Apps.

Microsoft's move represents something of gamble. One of the few advantages Windows Phone 7 holds over the iPhone (as well as Android) is support for native Office apps. Microsoft could theoretically take the position in which Office users who want to be able to work with your various Office docs and data on the go had better jump on board the Windows Mobile Express. However, the company has been asleep at the mobile wheel for so long that Apple has taken control of the mobile space, and third-party developers have cranked out software to bring Office to iOS, including DataViz Documents to Go, Quickoffice Connect Mobile Suite, and Byte Office Squared.

Now, Microsoft finds itself in the awkward position of fielding frustrated reproaches and complaints from users who have Windows on their computers and want to easily get at their data and docs on their iPhones. Said users won't be swayed to give up their iPhones (as least not for Windows Phone 7). They have alternatives to accessing their Windows data. What choices, really, does Microsoft have beyond caving to user demand? Well, the company could revert to ignoring the iPhone threat, but that strategy never paid off.

Then again, it's possible Microsoft hasn't heard a peep from iPhone users about the absence of native Office apps for iOS; the third-party versions out there could be on par with what Redmond has pushed out for its phone version of Windows. Microsoft hasn't put together OneNote for iPhone to sate customers, but rather to appear hip and relevant.

Questions remain, of course: Will we see Microsoft roll out other native Office apps for iPhone beyond OneNote? How about OneNote (or other Office apps) on mobile platforms other than iOS? Microsoft won't say right now, but the company is hinting strongly that it wants to bring Office to as many people as possible, regardless of device or platform, as noted by Microsoft's corporate vice president for Office Takeshi Numoto in a blog post announcing OneNote for iOS: "Whether it's on a PC or Mac, a mobile phone, or online through the Office Web Apps on multiple browsers, we continue to bring Office to the devices, platforms, and operating systems our customers are using. It should be about the ideas and information, not the device, right?"

The app is available now, free for the time being, in the iTunes App Store.

Follow Ted Samson on Twitter at tsamson_iw.

This article, "Microsoft builds Office app for iPhone -- hell refreezes," was originally published at Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog, and for the latest in business technology news, follow on Twitter.