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2/22/2014
09:06 AM
Michael Endler
Michael Endler
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Microsoft Office For iPad: Do It Right

Microsoft can't just force old favorites onto a new user interface. Office apps for iPad must be more touchable.

7 Mistakes Microsoft Made In 2013
7 Mistakes Microsoft Made In 2013
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Many commentators have debated if, when, and at what cost Microsoft should release Office for Apple's iPad. Though these issues are important, they overlook the most pressing concern: The apps need to be good -- really good.

Office is an excellent and often indispensable product. Many companies will purchase the iPad version, whenever it arrives, simply because of its inevitable manageability and document compatibility benefits. Its likely inclusion in Office 365 subscription plans should only hasten this kind of growth.

But those are IT-oriented appeals. Thanks to BYOD, employee preference matters too; iPads, the most widely-deployed tablets in the enterprise, are nothing if not poster children for workplace consumerization.

[Are you feeling the Windows XP fury? Read Windows XP Shutdown Outage: Users Boo Microsoft Blog.]

Some people prefer to treat iPads like highly portable laptops, using attachable third-party keyboards to type. But many use cases focus on the tablet line's touch UI, intuitive apps, and portability. That's where Office comes in. The software's success owes to its optimization for a desktop UI -- and as PC devotees are wont to point out, iPads don't work like desktops.

As a result, Microsoft can't merely force a mouse-and-keyboard UI onto a tablet form factor. It needs to devise a productive and engaging touch-first Office interaction model.

Microsoft Office needs a better touch-oriented user interface to succeed on tablets.
Microsoft Office needs a better touch-oriented user interface to succeed on tablets.

This urgency has been building for more than a year. In late 2012, Windows 8 was about to be released, and "tablet vs. PC" debates were reaching a fever pitch. During a conference speech that October, Gartner analyst Michael Silver said Office remained the most ubiquitous desktop software in the enterprise but called Microsoft's ability to create mobile versions of its Office suite a "wild card."

"What I want to do on my iPad to an Office doc is different than what I want to do with a mouse and keyboard," he said at the time. "[On the tablet] I want to mark it up, review it -- not write my life story."

He reiterated the point this week in an interview. "To some extent, I need two applications for each [interface] I use," Silver said, "a touch-friendly one, and then a desktop one for more detailed work."

With Office for the iPad, Microsoft "has an opportunity to launch something new and different that could show more innovation," Silver said. But "the trick" will be figuring out which existing features to include, reimagine, or discard.

Microsoft could follow the "less is more" ethos that has helped drive iPad adoption, suggests Forrester analyst David Johnson. "It doesn't need advanced features," he says of an iPad-oriented Office suite. "It needs to be strong in a few areas. What it does, it needs to do great."

Microsoft has ostensibly withheld an iPad-compatible version of Office for two reasons. First, it takes time to create such a product; remember, even Windows 8 doesn't yet offer a truly touch-first Office experience. Second, by making Office exclusive to Windows tablets, Microsoft hoped to catch up in the mobile device arena.

Despite this hope, Windows tablet sales have been modest -- and Apple just posted record iPad revenue. Demand for Office on a tablet (or at least on a tablet without a Live Tile UI) hasn't been as strong as Microsoft seems to have hoped.

Much of this disparity stems from consumer preference for the iOS ecosystem over the comparatively meager selection of touch apps in the Windows Store. But Microsoft might have fared better if some of those touch apps had been

Michael Endler joined InformationWeek as an associate editor in 2012. He previously worked in talent representation in the entertainment industry, as a freelance copywriter and photojournalist, and as a teacher. Michael earned a BA in English from Stanford University in 2005 ... View Full Bio

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