Put to the test: Microsoft's Office 365 on the iPad and Mac

The good news: Office and Exchange now work credibly on the iPad. The bad news: Microsoft is being as proprietary as Apple

For years, the world has been begging Microsoft to release its Office suite for the iPad. Finally, in February, Microsoft finally did so -- and Microsoft produced a solid set of apps in the form of Office for iPad. But there was a price: You must have an Office 365 subscription, and your files are essentially locked into Microsoft's own storage services (OneDrive and SharePoint).

Still, for the first time, people who don't use Windows or don't use Windows exclusively could work as equal partners in an Office-dominated environment -- which is most companies. Or could they? I set out to find out how Office 365 actually works in OS X, iOS, and Android.

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Office on the iPad and OS X: A decent experience
Microsoft has had Mac versions of its suite for decades -- Excel and PowerPoint got their start on the Mac, in fact. It's been sad to see Microsoft continually make the Mac version of Office inferior to the Windows version. Its performance is always noticeably sluggish on the Mac, though that's not true of software from other cross-platform companies, from Adobe to AutoDesk. Mac users typically wait several years before a new Windows version is ported to OS X, creating a compatibility gap.

Feature compatibility is usually compromised along the way. For example, Excel for Mac supports only a subset of macros, so accounting departments must use Windows PCs. SharePoint access is limited to essentially a Web-based, read-only mode across Office for Mac, which ironically encourages users to set up informal Dropbox or Box accounts. Office 2011 for Mac can't use all the fonts on your Mac if you have a large library installed, such as the full Adobe Font Folio -- it simply stops loading fonts when it's "full," making them inaccessible to your documents. Still, for most users, Office for Mac provides the capabilities they need -- even if you feel dissed in the process.

Office for iPad is less capable than Office for Mac, but it's roughly equal to Apple's iWork suite, which is perfectly adequate for most productivity work. Office for iPad lacks a key advantage of iWork: automatic syncing of documents across all your devices, so they're available offline. In Office, you expressly move a file to your iPad's local storage to work on it while, say, in flight. (If a document is open and you lose your connection, Office is smart enough to save a temporary local copy.)

Microsoft has been aggressively marketing document fidelity as an advantage of Office for iPad, but you get it only for simple to moderately complex documents using the same fonts. If you use the same fonts in Office documents on your Mac, Windows PC, and iPad, you'll discover that files moved among the three versions of Office rarely reflow due to platform differences. The same is true in moving files between iOS and OS X for iWork documents -- font fidelity typically provides layout fidelity. Office works best in an Office-only workflow, as iWork does in an iWork-only workflow.

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