If you haven't yet downloaded Word, Excel, and PowerPoint for the iPad, take a few minutes right now, grab your iPad, run to the App Store, and play with them. (To get full edit capability, you'll need an Office 365 account -- but even without Office 365, you'll be able to see what Microsoft's up to.) After the dreck of Windows 8 and the pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey layout of the touch version of Office 2013, the three Office for iPad apps tell me that, after years of waiting, Microsoft finally understands how to build a touch-centric interface.
No, it's not perfect. Yes, there are plenty of missing functions. No, you can't crop pictures. Yes, it locks you in to OneDrive at the hips and ankles. But if you look beyond the idiosyncracies and the lack of integration (Dropbox, anybody? Printing? AirPlay?), the overwhelming impression -- shout it from the rooftops, hallelujah: Microsoft finally knows how to build a touch interface. (Check out InfoWorld's first-look review of Office for iPad.)
Lance Ulanoff, writing for Mashable, explains how it happened. It's a familiar story. Han-Yi Shaw, Microsoft's Office Design Studio chief, figured that Microsoft "didn't really understand Apple's platform or how to develop Office for it." Bingo. Microsoft gave Shaw 200 developers and an infinite amount of time, and they came up with a product that may well foretell the redemption of Windows as we know it.
Yes, it's that impressive.
We didn't get a warmed-over port of the iPhone apps. We didn't get 10 pounds of ribbons stuffed into a 5-pound bag -- the hallmark of touch Office 2013. Instead, we got a completely fresh rethinking of all three apps, truly useful touches like the Excel-specific numeric keyboard and chart previews with live data, with enough visual cues to make it relatively easy for click-and-type Word curmudgeons (like me) to pick up the gist almost immediately. Office for iPad doesn't cover all the bases, but it covers the chosen subset with style.
Why can't Microsoft do the same thing for Windows?
Granted, Office for iPad has a long uphill road: Convincing people to pay every year for Office 365 won't be easy in the face of competing free or nearly free alternatives. The lock-in to OneDrive will be a turn-off to many. Office's decades of unquestioned dominance is fading as people learn they can do without, and the "anything but Microsoft" crowd continues to jeer. Still, for anyone who's tied into the Office file formats for whatever reason, Office for iPad has much to recommend.
It's entirely possible -- I would say probable -- that Terry Myerson, Microsoft's executive VP of Operating Systems, has a parallel group working on pulling Windows out of the fire that Office fell into. The trick, as many people have said, is to have the new touch Windows designed by one person with a very clear vision and a ton of know-how. If Microsoft could give us mouse-centric dinosaurs a desktop with a few key improvements, and some incentive -- carrots, mind you, not sticks -- to try a well-designed touch alternative, the results could be fabulous.
If Office for the iPad is any indication, that just might happen.
This story, "Microsoft finally turns out a real touch app -- is Windows next?," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.