Using cloud storage and premium features with Office for iOS

Using cloud storage and premium features with Office for iOS

For most people, PCs are their digital productivity tool of choice--especially when it comes to building documents, managing spreadsheets, and creating presentations. But between increasing large smartphones and the introduction of tablets, the traditional office environment is changing. I know several people who are primarily using their iPads for day-in, day-out productivity, and while that probably makes you raise an eyebrow--I know mine's raised--they're probably the start of a trend.

It took a while, but Microsoft Office is a strong presence on the iPad these days. Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote for iOS are all excellent--and not in a charitable "good for what it is" sort of way, but legitimately among the best iOS productivity apps--and they're all free on the App Store. Well, sort of.

One of the most confusing things to me about Office's presence on iOS are the rules about who can use these free apps, when a Microsoft account is required, and when an Office 365 account is required. I've spent a while trying to figure it out, and while I'm still not entirely sure I've got it sussed, here's what I've learned.

Regular people can use the apps for free. You don't even need to log in to a Microsoft account to use Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. And this isn't just for local files--thanks to an update earlier this year, you can open and save documents to Apple's iCloud Drive cloud storage without ever logging in to a Microsoft account. If you're on a Mac running Yosemite, those documents will sync automatically, letting you work on them on an iPad (or iPhone) or your Mac. If you're using a PC at your desk, Apple's got a download that enables iCloud on Windows.

If you want to access files in OneDrive or Dropbox, though, you'll need to log in to a Microsoft account. I was able to create a free account from right within the apps and access basic OneDrive storage as well as add my Dropbox account. When I logged in using my Office 365-enabled account, of course, I got access to everything.

According to Microsoft, some features of Office for iOS are restricted to Office 365 subscribers. It appears that Microsoft wanted to restrict these apps just enough to give users a nudge to pay for them if they're being used for serious, high-end professional work.

In terms of licensing, Microsoft says that if you're using its Office apps on iOS for business, you should be logged in with an Office 365 Business account. This policy appears to be essentially on the honor system, but of course if your company has Office 365 for Business, you can add access to your OneDrive for Business storage area as well.

So, with free apps and access to OneDrive, Dropbox, and iCloud Drive (as well as plain old local storage), what's not to like? Mostly it's an interface inconsistency thing, which I suspect has more to do with adoption of Apple's new iOS cloud storage APIs than anything else.

iOS app developers can integrate cloud storage in a couple of different ways. If they choose, they can integrate it directly, which is what Microsoft has done with its iOS apps. Microsoft's file-management interface is a multi-paned view that displays local and cloud storage in one pane. This is where Microsoft's native-build access to OneDrive resides, as well as Dropbox support--which Microsoft has built in using Dropbox's own APIs.

Unfortunately for Microsoft, Apple doesn't provide that kind of access to iCloud Drive. It uses a separate APIs built into iOS 8 in order to allow direct access by apps to cloud services via a systemwide file chooser. Unfortunately, other services--including Dropbox--haven't adopted this API for read/write access to their systems. Since Apple is using one approach and Microsoft and Dropbox are using a different one, we're left with a mixed metaphor in all of Microsoft's iOS apps.

File picker for Office on iPad

Down at the bottom of the list of available cloud services, Microsoft's apps display another option, labeled More. Tapping this opens a new modal window that displays the contents of iCloud Drive. It's a totally different approach than accessing files on Dropbox or OneDrive, and I don't think it's as good--but it's what Microsoft had to do to add iCloud Drive support to the mix.

In contrast, Google's iOS office apps--also very good--only support Google Drive, and Apple's iWork suite only supports iCloud Drive and other cloud services that support read/write access via the iOS 8.1 API that Dropbox and OneDrive don't yet support. (Yes, you can copy files from one service to another, but then you're creating version-control problems for yourself.)

As a result, Microsoft Office for iOS is probably the most flexible iOS productivity suite when it comes to accessing cloud storage. Whether you're happy with iCloud Drive, are committed to Dropbox, or are happy to use Microsoft's OneDrive, you can use any of them from Word, Excel, and PowerPoint for iOS.

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