Can Microsoft really pull off Office for iPad?

Apple's iWork suite has shown the way, but it's not good enough for many businesses

There's been a rumor for a few weeks that Microsoft is readying a version of its Office suite for the iPad. Most rumors turn out to be false; this one probably is too, but the notion of Office for iPad could be a wise move for Microsoft, if it can really deliver. Users would welcome a good Office for iPad, as the best iPad office productivity suite -- Apple's Pages, Numbers, and Keynote -- has several major holes that muddle its use for many.

The key question, of course, is whether Microsoft could deliver a usable, well-designed Office for iPad. Certainly, what it calls Office on its own Windows Phone 7 mobile OS is a joke, a collection of text-editor-like tools that have no serious utility -- barely updated versions of the useless Office tools from Windows Mobile. The cloud-oriented Office 365 is an awkward subset that works poorly on mobile devices. And Microsoft's radio silence on porting Office to its Metro UI -- the version of Windows 8 meant to run as a stand-alone platform on tablets -- suggests it's not certain it can pull off an Office that works well in a mobile, touch-oriented environment.

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On the desktop, Office today is extremely bloated, stuffed full of features that hardly anyone uses, with an opaque interface crammed with hieroglyphic icons and cognitive overload. It's a big fat mess. Shoehorning it into a slimmer environment won't work -- it needs a significant retooling both at the UI level and at the performance level.

Microsoft likes complicated UIs -- that's obvious from the progression from Windows XP to Vista to 7 -- and it has a history of making hardware manufacturers overcome its inefficient software. Microsoft's Mac port of Office has in every version been both inferior in ways that it shouldn't be and even slower to run than the Windows version. In fact, it's faster to run Windows Office on a Mac via desktop virtualization than to run native Mac Office on Mac OS X. What does that tell you?

How could Microsoft possible create an elegant, useful version of Office for iPad when it can't do so anywhere else? I doubt it can.

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