Microsoft unveils Office for iPad

The software suite goes on sale today, but it may be too little too late

Microsoft has finally developed a version of Office for the iPad, a move many feel comes too late.

The company made the announcement at a press conference in San Francisco that was webcast Thursday and hosted by Satya Nadella, Microsoft's newly appointed CEO.

[ InfoWorld pits Microsoft Office 365 against Google Apps and reveals the best office apps for your iPad. | Stay up on key Microsoft technologies in our Technology: Microsoft newsletter. ]

A Microsoft official demonstrated Excel, Word and PowerPoint working natively on an iPad and said the suite would be available later Thursday at the Apple App Store.

"It's a beautiful set of applications," Nadella said.

The decision brings together two of the world's most massively popular personal computing products: the ubiquitous and dominant Office productivity suite and the iPad, which Apple first released in 2010, igniting a tablet revolution.

Microsoft had been taking gradual, deliberate steps in this direction. It released a version of Office for the iPhone last year, but that product hasn't caught on, primarily because many Office functions don't lend themselves to smartphone screen sizes.

Microsoft has also progressively tweaked Office Online -- a browser-based version of the suite with limited functionality formerly called Office Web Apps -- to work better with Safari on the iPad.

Moreover, Microsoft has released individual apps for iOS in recent years, including SkyDrive and OneNote.

However, the company had resisted releasing a full-featured, native version of the suite with its core Word, Excel and PowerPoint apps. This opened the door for competitors to offer a wide range of alternatives.

As it did with its version for iPhone, Microsoft will sell Office to iPad users via a subscription to Office 365, the suite edition that people pay for annually.

In a research note published last week, Morgan Stanley analysts predicted that if Microsoft offered Office 365 for iPad users would increase Microsoft annual billings by about $1.2 billion.

However, Microsoft will also make the Office for iPad applications available for free download and use with a limited set of their capabilities.

Microsoft also announced that it is making Office Mobile for iPhones and Android smartphones free, so it will no longer be necessary for people to have an Office 365 subscription.

Existing Office 365 subscribers can add their iPads as one of their chosen devices for their subscription. They'll be able to create and edit Word, PowerPoint and Excel documents. It's not clear whether the iPad applications replicate all the features found in the main desktop versions of the applications.

The free iPad versions of the apps allow users to read and present documents, spreadsheets and presentations. Office for iPad is available in 29 languages.

Touch-first editions of Office for Windows 8 and for other operating systems -- presumably Android -- will be released later.

"When it comes to Office 365, the vision is pretty straightforward: to make sure that the 1 billion Office users -- and growing -- can have access to the high-fidelity Office experience on every device they love to use," Nadella said. "Today's announcement of Office on the iPad marks one more step in that direction."

It has been assumed that Microsoft's reluctance to fully embrace Office for iPads was the result of concern that this would detract from the attractiveness of Windows 8 and help iOS.

However, Nadella said that "there is no tradeoff" for Microsoft in releasing Office for iPad, because the company's mission is to respond to the reality of its customers and provide them with the tools they need in multiple devices, operating systems and cloud platforms.

"Our commitment going forward is to make sure that we drive Office 365 everywhere: that means across the Web, across all phones, all tablets, across PCs," Nadella said.

After kicking off the press conference by quoting verses from a T.S. Eliot poem, Nadella talked about the push at Microsoft to explore innovation opportunities in what he called the intersection of cloud and mobile, recognizing that the world has become "mobile first and cloud first."

Microsoft's mission is to provide the software, cloud services, tools and devices customers need for their personal and work lives, as well as cater in a comprehensive way to the needs of application developers and IT professionals, he said.

Microsoft also announced the EMS (Enterprise Mobility Suite), which is described as "a set of cloud services" for businesses to manage the data, applications and user credentials in employees' devices.

It will be available in May via Volume Licensing channels and includes Windows Intune, Azure Active Directory Premium and Azure Rights Management Services.

Nadella called EMS "perhaps the most strategic piece" of what Microsoft is doing to support infrastructure development in enterprises. "It's all grounded on the complexity that needs to be tamed today," he said, referring to the challenges IT pros face in managing the devices employees own and bring from home, and the identity and security issues that creates.

"What we're announcing today is both offerings and a road map to build a comprehensive enterprise architecture for IT professionals to be able to bring together their IT management, access management, device management and data protection into one suite and one enterprise architecture that works across all devices: Windows, iOS, Android," he said. "That's a massive step forward for anyone who has been tackling and dealing with the complexity that's inherent."

The company will talk more in depth about how this push for innovation exploration will manifest itself in its flagship Windows OS next week at its Build conference, he said.

One of the biggest blunders for Microsoft in recent years was its inability to position Windows to capitalize on the blazing hot popularity of smartphones and tablets as Google did with Android and Apple with iOS.

As hundreds of millions of people bought iPhones, iPads and Android smartphones and tablets, they brought them to the office, igniting the consumerization of IT trend, so Microsoft found itself lagging in this market both at home and at work.

When Microsoft belatedly released versions of Windows designed to make up the lost ground -- Windows Phone 8 and Windows 8 -- they didn't succeed as the company expected.

Microsoft is still laboring to refine those operating systems and is doubling down on the mobile market by making its own hardware devices. It started with its line of Surface tablets and is in the process of acquiring Nokia's smartphone business for a whopping US$7.2 billion, a deal that still hasn't closed.

Adapting Office for touchscreen devices is also a tall order and the complexity of the endeavor likely also added to the late arrival, since the way of interacting with the applications needs to be rethought and redesigned.

Juan Carlos Perez covers enterprise communication/collaboration suites, operating systems, browsers and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Juan on Twitter at @JuanCPerezIDG.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.