CloudOn's iPad app -- and the associated CloudOn.com web site -- offer iPad users a somewhat watered-down version of the notebook/desktop PC user's holy grail: access to Microsoft Office's Word, Excel and PowerPoint applications. For many iPad owners, this might be good enough, but for others, perhaps not.
One reason why many users hold off on switching from a notebook PC to an Apple iPad -- or from carrying both -- is because they need to be able to use Microsoft Office: specifically Word, Excel and/or PowerPoint. Currently, Microsoft does not offer iOS app versions of Office. Rumors periodically surface, but as of early February 2012, there's nothing official to report.
The CloudOn app and associated service represent one type of solution to this issue, although there are a number of others. CloudOn for iPad requires iOS 4.2 or later, along with a Dropbox.com account to hold your files. CloudOn does not provide any storage, just "Office-As-A-Service." Currently, there's no charge for either the CloudOn app or for an account on the CloudOn site. Conveniently, you can get a free Dropbox account with 2GB of space, and you can buy up to 100GB.
In reviewing the CloudOn app and the associated service, we've found that, as claimed, CloudOn does let you use your iPad to create, view, and edit Dropbox files directly in Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint.
On the other hand, CloudOn's approach to Office isn't exactly perfect. Importantly, some features simply won't work -- or won't work correctly -- on the iPad. For example, PowerPoint offers to let you include video or other multimedia files from your computer in a slide. However, with CloudOn, PowerPoint isn't running on your iPad, so PowerPoint can't do that. CloudOn has lots of other limitations, too, which we'll get to later in this review.
Before drilling down more deeply into CloudOn, though, let's take a look at the various other types of options available.
Other Office Options
Another approach is to forego the cloud and to simply use an iOS app touted as able to handle Office files. Apple has its Pages (word processing), Keynote (presentations) and Numbers (spreadsheets), each priced at $9.99. Several other third-party apps are also available, like DataViz's feature-rich Documents to Go Premium. However, these programs might or might not support the file formats or Office features that you want and/or need.
A second option is to run a remote-access app like GoToMyPC, LogMeIn Ignition or TeamViewer on your iPad, and then connect to Microsoft Office on your computer. Of course, this approach assumes you have a copy of MS Office running on a computer that you can leave on, which is also accessible through your home router and/or company firewall. It also assumes that your iPad has adequate Internet connectivity -- Wi-Fi, carrier broadband, mobile broadband, or a mobile hotspot. For many of us, this isn't always necessarily going to be the case.
A third option, popular for notebook and desktop PCs as well, is to use one (or more) web-based office productivity suites such as Google Docs, HyperOffice, or Zoho. The upside here is that many of these services are free. The downsides are that the cloud suite may not have specific features you need -- and again, as with the remote access approach, you will need Internet connectivity.
Cloud Access to MS Office
CloudOn belongs to a growing fourth category: Cloud-based access to Microsoft Office Word, Excel, and PowerPoint.
In this category, Microsoft does have an offering: its Office365 cloud service. Alternatively, CloudOn and other third-party companies offer "Desktop-as-a-Service" (DaaS) services to connect you to a virtual machine running desktop Windows and a handful of apps. Other DaaS offerings include OnLive Desktop, Desktone.com, and Virtuon.com's vPresence, for instance.
Yet being able to run or access Microsoft Office from your iPad is only half -- well, maybe two-thirds -- of the challenge. Tablets aren't notebooks in terms of the user interface or the operating system, and this is particularly true of the iPad, which runs Apple's iOS.
iOS does not support a mouse or other pointing peripheral. So, for example, you have to touch the screen to start a cut or copy operation -- or to do a number of other activities which call for left- or right-clicking or moving the mouse in Microsoft Windows.
Another barrier is that the iPad's virtual keyboard consumes a significant amount of display "real estate," and isn't the same as typing on a physical keyboard. There are many good Bluetooth keyboards for the iPad, but even these don't completely replicate the notebook/desktop keyboard experience.
Furthermore, unlike Windows, Linux or Apple's Mac OS X, iOS only lets you view one application at a time.
How Does CloudOn Stack Up?
Keeping all of this in mind, CloudOn stacks up rather well against competing approaches, on the whole. Using the CloudOn app on my iPad 2, I was able to create, view and edit Word, Excel and PowerPoint files in my DropBox account, including features such as "change tracking" in Word and "presentation mode" in PowerPoint.
Although CloudOn's web site and iTunes pages say "For the first time you can get Microsoft Office on your iPad," that's misleadingly imprecise. You're accessing a copy of Microsoft Office running in the cloud.
That's good, in that you're using Office, rather than some other Office-mimicking application. What's not necessarily good is that your iPad is simply a thin client (display and keyboard). All of the computing and storage is happening in the cloud, which means you are at the mercy of whatever type of Internet connectivity you're using.
Also, as stated before, in terms of delivering Microsoft Office to the iPad, some of the features simply don't work on Apple's tablet. Version-wise, according to the CloudOn site, "CloudOn currently supports Microsoft Office 2010." Whether "supports" is the same as "runs" is unclear.
CloudOn's site goes on to say, "You may notice that some of the elements in the applications look different from the version on your computer. This was done to make the applications easier to use while working on the iPad."
That's a big distinction. What you see on your iPad isn't identical to what you would see on a Windows machine running Office 2010.
Other Faulty Features
Even using a Bluetooth keyboard, the commands and keystrokes aren't all the same as they'd be in Windows. For example, ALT-S doesn't force a Save. Moreover, none of the three apps offer "split screen" as a VIEW option.
More significantly, there's no "SAVE AS..." CloudOn auto-saves, very frequently -- which means that you can't save iterative drafts from within the app. (There is a workaround to this, though, and it's to start from a master copy, and the make fresh uniquely-named copies before you start each new session. such as FNORDTESTING, FNORDTESTING-01, FNORDTESTING-02...)
Also, CloudOn only supports MS Office in "landscape mode," which means that using the iPad's virtual keyboard, you only have about half of the display available -- a compelling reason to use a Bluetooth keyboard.
Beyond that, there's no support in CloudOn for printing files from within the app, or for saving files in other formats aside from each app's native format.
CloudOn says it is considering adding AirPrint support, which would thereby allow you to print to any Airprint-enabled printer. (A current workaround to this is to print from Dropbox.)
CloudOn does what it claims. It lets you access and use Microsoft Office from your iPad. The current price -- free -- is right. However, unless your Internet access is certain and you don't really need all of the features in MS Office, you might want to hedge your bets by using CloudOn alongside one or more of the alternative approaches described in this review.
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