Rumours have been floating around for some time that Microsoft is hard at work developing Microsoft Office apps for iOS - or more specifically for the Apple iPad. Speculation about Office for iOS has grown following the launch of Office 2013 and the new Office 365, but Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer appears to have squashed that dream for the time being.
When asked about progress on Office apps for iOS, Ballmer responded: "We do have a way for people always to get to Office through the browser, which is very important." While that may be technically true, I disagree with Ballmer that it satisfies the need. I've been a champion of Office for iOS since the iPad first came out. Here are three reasons Microsoft needs to release native Microsoft Office apps for iOS and Android:
1. Not compatible with Office on Demand
One of the benefits of subscribing to Office 365 - as opposed to simply purchasing Office 2013 - is that it includes a feature called Office On Demand. Office On Demand enables you to log in from any Windows 7 or Windows 8 system and work with streamed virtual versions of the full Office applications. Unfortunately, Office On Demand doesn't work with iOS or Android.
2. Office Web Apps aren't the same
In dismissing the idea of Office for iOS, Ballmer implies that using Office Web Apps from the iPad browser delivers a sufficient experience. Facebook and LinkedIn each had a similar stance regarding the iPad, but eventually came around. While it is technically possible to interact with Office Web Apps through the browser, a native app delivers a far superior experience.
My experience in trying to use Office Web Apps from an iPad left quite a bit to be desired. Microsoft has addressed some of the major issues, and Office Web Apps have gone from dysfunctional to tolerable, but they're still severely crippled compared to the real Microsoft Office applications. If Microsoft's OneNote, SkyDrive, and Lync apps for iOS are any indication, the rest of the Microsoft Office would greatly benefit from having dedicated apps.
3. Microsoft is conceding a huge market
In the years that have passed since the iPad was first introduced, a variety of alternatives have sprung up to fill the Microsoft Office void. Apple's iWorks apps (Pages, Numbers, and Keynote), and third-party apps such as DocsToGo and QuickOffice deliver a similar set of capabilities, and promise at least some degree of compatibility with Microsoft Office file formats.
None of those products offers the same comprehensive set of features as Microsoft Office, but they'll all get the job done. Many alternative apps also provide broader integration with the local file storage on the iPad, as well as third-party cloud storage services such as Box, Google Drive, Dropbox, and SugarSync.
I said almost a year ago: "The bottom line is this - Microsoft's virtual monopoly of the PC market is fading. Even if it's wildly successful with smartphones and tablets it will never have a dominant share of the mobile market. Ignoring iOS and Android means leaving millions of users without Microsoft Office, and eroding the relevance of the Microsoft productivity suite."
To rephrase it from a more current perspective, Microsoft has a vested interest in maintaining and building the audience for Microsoft Office, but it is faced with a shifting tech landscape where traditional PCs - the purview of Microsoft Windows - are losing momentum. It needs to encourage customers to embrace the Office 365 subscription model, but there is less incentive to do so if users will still be forced to spend additional money to purchase a secondary office suite for their iOS or Android mobile device.
There are reports that Microsoft and Apple have been at odds over Apple's cut of app sales, or in-app purchases. If that's true, the statement by Ballmer might just be bravado - posturing in an effort to get Apple to negotiate.
The problem with that theory is that Apple doesn't need Microsoft or Microsoft Office. Microsoft, however, does need Apple - and it will be a huge mistake if Microsoft fails to deliver native apps for iOS.
Mr. Ballmer, working with Office via the browser on a mobile device is simply not good enough. Office for iOS is very necessary.