Smaller iPad Pro can use Microsoft Office for free, but larger iPad Pro can't

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Microsoft's screen-size threshold for free Office usage excludes the 12.9-inch iPad Pro -- but not the new 9.7-inch model

Here’s one point Apple marketing chief Phil Schiller didn’t make in trying to portray the new 9.7-inch iPad Pro the ultimate PC replacement: if you buy it, you won’t have to pay for an Office 365 subscription to use Microsoft’s iOS Office apps.

But if you buy the larger, 12.9-inch model, you will. Why? Because of the vagaries of Microsoft’s mobile Office strategy.

Almost a year ago, Microsoft tried to distinguish what defined a mobile experience, and thus what devices would typically be used on the go. So, Microsoft decided to charge Office 365 licensing fees for using Office at a desk, performing productive work. Microsoft views mobile apps as more appropriate for light editing, rather than document creation, so it made much of Office's capabilities available at no charge on mobile devices. (You still need a Office 365 subscription to use all the Office features on a mobile device.)

But what is a mobile device in an era of tablet-like laptops? Microsoft decided to divide mobile and desktop users based on screen size; specifically, 10.1 inches. Any device with a screen smaller than that -- running iOS, Windows, or Android app -- can use most of the Office capabilities, including creating, editing, and sharing documents. Any device with a  larger screen -- again, running iOS, Windows, or Android -- can only edit and view an Office document created elsewhere.

That 10.1-inch threshold covers the original 12.9-inch iPad Pro but not the new 9.7-inch iPad Pro. It also covers oversize Android tablets like the Samsung Galaxy Tab Pro, and all of Microsoft Surface tablet PCs.

That means that, if you define productivity as access to Microsoft’s excellent Office apps for iOS, the smaller iPad Pro is actually more productive than the larger version unless you spend more money for that Office 365 subscription.

If you’re worried that Microsoft may erase this distinction and reduce Office's capabilities on all mobile devices, you probably shouldn’t be. One of the foundations of Microsoft’s Continuum plan is to allow its Lumia smartphones to plug into a Display Dock and essentially run the free mobile Office apps on a desktop monitor. If Microsoft changed its screen-size threshold for free Office use, one of Continuum’s advantages would disappear.

(Thanks to analyst Wes Miller for pointing this out.)

This story, "Smaller iPad Pro can use Microsoft Office for free, but larger iPad Pro can't" was originally published by Macworld.

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