Word for iPad

Office for iOS shows Microsoft's plans for touch productivity

On Wednesday Microsoft released touch-enabled versions of the core Office apps to users of the Windows 10 Technical Preview. It's early days yet, but the touch-enabled apps look similar to the what Microsoft already rolled out for iOS.

Here's Richard Hay's screen shot of the Windows app headers, posted here on Thursday.

And here's a look at those same apps on an iPad running iOS 8:

iOS office headers

There are differences, to be sure. But the core design--an attractive, bright color-coded header (blue for Word, green for Excel, red for PowerPoint, purple for OneNote) containing a tabbed toolbar--is the same. The Windows apps align the tabs to the left side, while on iOS the tabs appear in the center (with an iOS-style font and all-caps labels), with additional buttons aligned left and right. Those buttons include quick access to undo/redo and search, among other features.

I'm looking forward to hearing how Windows users respond to the new touch Office apps, but if the quality of the iOS apps is any indication, it should be positive. That's because the Office for iOS apps are terrific.

The iOS Office apps have always been free, but initially they weren't particularly useful unless you were an active Office 365 subscriber. But back in November, Microsoft changed its tune and made all the iOS apps free for anyone to use for basic, non-commercial tasks. Businesses are expected to pay for Office 365 in order to honor the licensing terms.

Still, in a Bring-Your-Own-Device world, letting users get comfortable with Office apps on the iPad for free on their own time is probably a smart move. Maybe a whole new generation of Office users will spring up on touch devices, ready to plug in their employer's Office 365 information once they take their first job.

As a Mac user, I've got to admit that the iOS version of Office feels much more refined than the creaky, five-year-old version of Office that still counts as current on the Mac. (Microsoft says a new version of Office for Mac is coming later this year.) It's indisputably Office, and has design flourishes that set it apart from most iOS apps--and make it feel more familiar for users of Office on other platforms--but it's first-rate software.

Obviously, OneDrive is closely integrated into these apps, though it's not required. The only other native cloud-storage service currently supported is Dropbox, which appears as a peer to OneDrive and functions more or less the same when you're the only one work on a file. (One of the advantages of saving a file to OneDrive is that it's also directly accessible in the Office web apps, as well as PC Office.)

Unlike most iPad document-editing experiences, which involve copying a file from somewhere, editing it on the iPad, and saving a copy back to a server, the Office apps will automatically sync changes back and forth between OneDrive or Dropbox and the iPad. (You can turn this feature off if you'd rather manually sync changes.) There's even a Save As dialog--which you'll almost never see in iPad apps--that lets you give a document a name and choose where it'll live on your cloud drive of choice.

If you're using some other cloud-storage service, such as Box, it's a lot less convenient. You can open a file in Box and then transfer it to Word or Excel, but in doing so you're making a duplicate--and getting that file back into Box is a convoluted runaround that I can't really recommend to anyone.

The iOS versions of Office, while remarkably functional (and file compatible), don't offer many of the more advanced features of the suite. Macros, for instance, are just not gonna happen. But you can get real work done on even the eight-inch iPad mini, or even an iPhone. (Microsoft's collapsed the ribbon interface on the iPhone in order to fit more information, but the power's still there--it just takes a few more taps to get to it.)

iOS contextual menu

As Richard noted with the touch version of Windows Office, some of the conventions you expect from a mouse-and-keyboard-driven interface are quite different on an all-touch interface. When you tap on a selection in Word for iOS, you're provided with a simple contextual menu displaying the options Cut, Copy, Paste, Delete, and Define. If it's a misspelled word, your first tap will bring up spelling suggestions, and a second tap will change to display the cut/copy/paste options.

Touch apps are extremely different beasts from the desktop counterparts we're all familiar with. And yes, these apps fail to offer all the power that we're used to getting from something called Microsoft Office. But as I was reminded by reading this story by avid iPad user Federico Viticci this week, different users have different priorities.

Viticci's is probably an extreme case--he's using an iPad as his primary work device--but his story is instructive. Extreme portability--letting the work get done no matter where you are--is a different sort of power. But it's something many users will crave.

TAGS: Office 365
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