Microsoft could reap billions by releasing Office for iOS. Make no mistake, the version of Office for iPhone that Redmond released Friday is not what those analysts were talking about.
That's not to say the company won't make a lot of money due to the new offering, or to suggest the iOS apps won't be useful. But Office Mobile for iPhone is exactly that -- a product tailored specifically to the iPhone. When tech commentators talk about Office's potential on iOS, iPad support is a big part of the equation. Unfortunately for many Apple customers, Microsoft is unlikely to make that move any time soon.
The reason? Office Mobile -- which includes versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint -- isn't really about helping iOS users. Many of these users will certainly benefit from the apps, but that's incidental to Microsoft's real goal: pushing Office 365 subscriptions.
Office 365 has been one of Microsoft's biggest success stories over the last year. To many businesses, its cloud-based approach, which includes up to five machines on a single license, is more agile and easily managed than alternatives. For a number of scenarios, such as workflows that involve multiple devices per employee, Office 365 is also cheaper. To businesses that are already invested in the product, or that were on the fence about signing up, Office Mobile for iPhone only sweetens the deal.
[ Will a Microsoft OS refresh cause business users to take another look at upgrading? See Windows 8.1: 10 Surprise Benefits. ]
For consumers and BYOD users, Office 365's appeal has been somewhat less clear. Millions have old versions of Office on their home PCs, and for the majority of tasks, these aging editions are still adequate. Office 365, which is $100 annually for the Home Premium package, offers access to Microsoft's latest and greatest features -- but unless one needs to synch content across devices via the cloud, or have access to documents while on-the-go, many of the newest versions' enhancements simply won't warrant an upgrade.
Even for new customers, Office 365 might not appeal. People who use Office on only one machine, and who aren't concerned about immediate upgrades, could also save money by buying the standalone version of Office 2013, for example.
Microsoft wants to encourage upgrades, and would rather that customers opt for subscriptions, which provide a perpetual revenue stream, instead of standalone releases. By opening Office to iOS, it could advance this goal. Millions of iPhone-toting consumers who currently use Office on only one machine might now have a reason to use it on two. Likewise, many users who were satisfied with an antiquated version might be more tempted to upgrade. The new apps won't make Office 365 the standard in homes around the world, but they'll still attract new customers and generate millions -- at least -- in additional revenue.
Still, despite the hoopla these apps are sure to create, Redmond hasn't really rocked the boat.
Microsoft stresses that Office Mobile is a lightweight version of its desktop equivalent, not meant for in-depth content creation so much as document review and collaboration. The new product certainly enhances the iPhone's capabilities, but much of what it offers was either already available out of the box, or through a series of workarounds. Apple's mobile OS already allows viewers to view most types of Office files, for example, and mobile device management companies already offer iOS users the ability to access and annotate SharePoint files.
Office for Mobile goes beyond and simplifies these earlier solutions, of course, adding not only true document editing capabilities but also useful synching features, such as the ability to begin working on a document on a PC, leave and seamlessly resume work on an iPhone. Because they are official releases, the apps will be more stable and consistent than current solutions, and Redmond has intelligently built the app around the smartphone form factor. Word on iOS includes a Viewing tool, for example, that allows users to scan through outlines of larger documents, making it easier to manage a large volume of text on a small screen.
But Office on the iPhone isn't a game-changer, from a mass market perspective. It essentially extends capabilities to the iPhone that were already available on Windows Phone 8. If these functions were so essential, one would think Microsoft's smartphones -- which have sold relatively well but are still feeding on iOS and Android table scraps -- would have flown off shelves.
A version of Office optimized for the iPad, in contrast, would have been a huge story -- but it also would have negated Windows 8's primary appeal over its tablet rivals. Yes, Win8 can run a lot of x86 applications, but outside of Office, most of this software involves pockets of niche users. Even with Windows 8.1 coming, Microsoft's OS won't win BYOD users on price, user interface or mobile app selection. Android and iOS are already too established on those fronts, which essentially leaves Office as Win8's broad appeal. The fact that the cheapest, most consumer-friendly Win8 tablets will soon come bundled with Office certainly suggests as much.
This need to protect Windows 8 explains why Microsoft has welcomed the iPhone but continues to shun the iPad. Office for iOS represents a careful balance; it has to be good enough to encourage Office 365 adoption but not so good that it cannibalizes Windows 8's potential consumer base.
To be clear, Office Mobile will run on an iPad, but users will be forced to work in a tiny, iPhone-sized window, or to degrade the apps' visuals by scaling up the interface for the larger screen. In a blog post, Microsoft suggested iPad users will "have a more satisfying experience using Office Web Apps," the browser-based version that already allows Office 365 customers to access Office on Apple and Android tablets.
Microsoft's probably right; many iPad users will prefer the browser edition to a re-appropriated iPhone app. But Web Apps are no replacement for the real thing. For starters, they simply aren't as rich and fully featured. Moreover, they require that the user be connected to the Internet, a requirement that -- as Microsoft has recently heard from legions of angry Xbox users -- isn't always practical.
But Microsoft knows that the Web Apps are limited, and that's the point. The extent to which tablets are suited for content creation isn't completely clear, but if consumers are willing to base purchase decisions on the availability of Office, Microsoft wants these customers all to itself. If Windows 8 gains a better hold on the market, Redmond might loosen its grip. But until then, don't expect Office Mobile for iPhone to realign any paradigms, or for a tablet-optimized iOS version to hit the market.
Disappointed iPad users can take solace in one tidbit from Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference, though: An improved, cloud-based version of iWork, Apple's Office competitor, is coming.