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

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Office 365 is Microsoft's walled-garden answer to Apple's and Google's
You can see where this is going: If you want to use Office apps and services across devices, you need an Office 365 subscription, you're limited to where you can store your files and how you can collaborate outside of Office 365, and you are essentially limited to Windows, OS X, and the iPad.

That's a tighter level of control than Apple provides with iWork, which requires no subscription but does require an iCloud.com account; offers modestly more collaboration capabilities; and is limited to OS X, the iPad, the iPhone, and (via its less-capable Web version) Windows. Both Apple and Microsoft are, at least for now, leaving Android out in the cold when it comes to Office. Google Docs works on the greatest number of platforms and provides the broadest set of collaboration capabilities, but it's a very weak productivity suite (especially on mobile devices) that won't satisfy most users.

Mobile Office's difficulty in sharing files is especially galling. I find it very frustrating that Office for iPad can't open files from or save files to other cloud storage services like Box and Dropbox -- this short leg of the Office 365 stool shows how Microsoft still treats the PC as the center of the universe, "mobile first" pronouncements notwithstanding.

Office for iPad also can't share files with other iPad apps, though you can email documents to yourself or others to open in other apps or outside an Office 365 prison. And it's very difficult to do basic file management, such as creating folders and renaming files -- you must do so in the OneDrive app, at the OneDrive website, or in SharePoint, which works well only in Windows. The one ray of light is that you can associate both corporate and personal OneDrive accounts to the Office for iPad apps, so you can do both personal and business work with them.

Still, all these restrictions and hurdles make it hard to work with documents across multiple apps and with people not part of your Microsoft environment. Of course, that's the classic walled-garden strategy, and many companies will like it because it provides more control over their employees' document flow, or at least barriers to help keep data in line.

But "more control" does not mean Windows-level control: You can't apply Microsoft's information rights management to Office for iPad, as you can in Office for Windows and OS X via Microsoft's server apps. Additionally, you can't password-protect files in Office for iPad, as you can in Office for Windows and OS X -- and in Apple's iWork for iPad and OS X.

The truth is that Apple and Google play the same walled-garden game, particularly in the mobile environment. Though Apple's iWork suite in iOS lets you open and save files from some cloud storage services, the process is awkward and easily missed. Google's Quickoffice and Drive apps also let you share files with other iOS apps, including cloud-storage clients, but Google won't let you edit cloud-stored Drive files in its Quickoffice app for iOS or Android -- even though it's a much more capable editor than Drive. You're again forced to stay in a locked-down cloud storage enviroment. (I have to wonder how long Box and Dropbox can stay in business, given that Microsoft, Google, and Apple are increasingly squeezing out competing storage and sharing services.)

The situation is less oppressive in the world of computers. In Windows and OS X, Office can work with local files as well as with cloud storage services beyond OneDrive and SharePoint; the same goes for iWork in OS X and, via the Web version at iCloud.com, Windows users. On PCs and Macs, Google users can do limited editing on the Drive website, and they can share files with local drives and other cloud storages via their computers.

Given the walled-garden realities of today's cloud-delivered application suites (or at least cloud-coordinated, in the case of iWork), Microsoft's Office 365 provides a good experience on Windows, OS X, and the iPad. Depending on your workflow and your control tendencies, it may be the best walled garden for your multiple platforms.

Overall, though, Office 365 is rarely better and sometimes worse than an environment that lets users mix their preferred apps and clients. That is progress for Microsoft, but not necessarily for all of us.

This article, "Put to the test: Microsoft's Office 365 on the iPad and Mac," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Galen Gruman's Smart User blog. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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