First look: Office for iPad is a mixed bag, but a good first step

Although the long-desired Office version is no match for iWork, it is perhaps a sign of better things to come

[UPDATED 4/29/14] Microsoft's release of Office for the iPad is both a shock to the system and a long time coming. It's a shock because the company has been steadfastly crippling its software on other platforms in hopes of forcing people to stick with Windows. But with yesterday's announcement, new CEO Satya Nadella broke from that past, and it's a major, necessary mental shift for the company. It's a long time coming because Apple has had the desktop-class iWork office suite -- Pages, Numbers, and Keynote -- since 2010, and there are several credible third-party office apps as well. Microsoft is very late to the game.

First look: Office for iPad is a mixed bag, but a good first step

Office for iPad is Microsoft's best touch-oriented software ever. It's much better than the barely functional Office for Windows Phone, Android, and iPhone, and much easier to use than the special Office edition for Microsoft's Surface tablets. It's also a step up from the Web version of Office on the iPad. Had Microsoft released this Office for its Surface tablets, people might actually have adopted Surface tablets in decent numbers. Oddly, there's still no usable Office for Surface nor an Office for Android tablets, so Microsoft's office-everywhere ambitions are clearly not fully realized.

[ More on InfoWorld: How Apple, Google, and Microsoft are trapping you in their clouds. | Review: Microsoft Office 365 vs. Google Apps. | Keep up on key mobile developments and insights with the Mobilize newsletter. ]

Before you rejoice over Office finally coming to the iPad, I have to caution you: Office for iPad has weaknesses that will likely keep most iPad users sticking to Apple's software, which can read and write the Microsoft Office formats with ease. Compared to its previous versions, Office for iPad is a major improvement. But compared to iWork, it's inferior.

Office for iPad is a moderately useful product and one that doesn't yet deliver on Nadella's grand rhetoric about Microoft being mobile- and cloud-first. Office is still most definitely a desktop-first product, and Office for iPad doesn't move the needle far enough from that state. I suspect Nadella inherited this product from predecessor Steve Ballmer, so maybe next year we'll get the real mobile-first Office for iPad.

The Office user interface is clean and straightforward, a must for iPad users, but it keeps the Metro identity Microsoft debuted in Windows Phone and Windows 8. That's an admirable feat. But I do wish that Microsoft had used larger, bolder type than it did in the Office UI -- Office for iPad is easier to use with reading glasses on than without them.

Because Google crippled Quickoffice to promote its awful Google Drive editing tools and because Citrix bought the very capable Office2HD and made it available only to Citrix ShareFile users, the reality is that there are only two real competitors for office productivity on the iPad now: Office and iWork. If they still existed in their pre-acquisition forms, Office for iPad would rank after them but ahead of marginal products like Polaris Office and DocsToGo. In other words, it's second best by default and not yet fully by merit.

Office for iPad doesn't play nicely with others or with files
One flaw is that Office is slow in storing files to and reading files from its OneDrive cloud service. It loads the entire file each time and eats up your data plan much quicker than with iWork for iPad, which sends only the changes between your iPad and Apple's iCloud service. Like iWork, Office does save a working copy of your OneDrive files to your iPad, so if you lose your Internet connection you still have that local version to work with. But it doesn't sync versions across all your devices in the background as iWork does. (That's a bit odd, as Microsoft sells Office 365 through the Apple App Store, which should make it eligible to use iCloud, an Apple service that is available to App Store developers only.)

There are also no controls for file renaming and folder organization in Office for iPad as there are in iWork. But you can duplicate files within the Office apps and save them to your iPad's local storage rather than to OneDrive or SharePoint. And there's no export capability to other formats, as in iWork. Microsoft's OneDrive cloud storage app doesn't help much -- its file-renaming process is unintuitive and excessively complicated. It can't create folders either, although it lets you move files into existing folders.

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