Where Is Microsoft Office Really Heading?

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Microsoft might or might not be going ahead with iPad and Android editions of Office, but a rebranded edition of its Web Apps seem to be in the cards, probably with Apple Safari browser support. Does Microsoft plan to keep withholding a fuller Office “experience” from iOS and Android users, so as to promote its Surface tablets and other Windows tablets and PCs?

UPDATE: On February 20, 2014, Microsoft did perform the rebranding. Web Apps are now officially known as Office Online. In addition, the apps are now accessible not just from SkyDrive, but from a new Web page at Office.com. Apps in the rebranded suite include OneDrive, Calendar, and People, along with Outlook.com and online editions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote. 

Last fall, Steve Ballmer promised on a couple of occasions that Microsoft would build native editions of Office for both iOS and Android.

Some now doubt Microsoft’s intentions in this direction, while others are convinced that an iPad app (at least) is still a go.

But even if the iPad and Android tablet apps do come to pass, will they offer users much more than the scanty options already available from Microsoft for the iOS and Android platforms?

Is Microsoft Ditching the Promised Apps?

On Thursday of last week, Microsoft’s marketing chief got tongues wagging when she acknowledged that Microsoft sees Office as helping to set Windows apart from other OSs.

“With Windows, we’re spending a lot of time thinking about how we continue to differentiate the full Windows experience, particularly as we think of our partners and how they pick Windows over Android,” said Tami Reller, Microsoft’s executive VP for marketing, speaking at the Goldman Sachs Technology & Internet Conference in New York Ctiy.

Reller’s answer came in response to a question posed by the moderator as to Microsoft’s willingness to “repurpose” Office for other platforms, even if this means “hurting Windows’ appeal.”

While Reller’s words have been widely interpreted to mean that Microsoft is scotching its plans to produce Office apps for iPad and Android tablets, she never really said that at all.

The most significant part of her cryptic statement might have been the bit about “the full Windows experience.” 

‘Miramar’: Ready Soon?

Meanwhile, according to a report published Friday in ZDNet, Microsoft does plan to release an Office app for the iPad in the first half of 2014. Codenamed “Miramar”, the app will likely require an Office 365 subscription, and it will probably save files by default to OneDrive, with options to save locally.

Also last week, a chart outlining the features of the unannounced “Office Online” suite showed up on Microsoft’s site, but then abruptly and mysteriously vanished into thin air. 

Microsoft Office Online Not AvailableWeb sites like ZDNet and Livesino.net published screen shots, along with a link to the chart. However, attempts by TabletPCReview to access the chart from Monday afternoon onward yielded nothing but error messages saying that the page is unavailable.

For an expanded view of the screenshot at right, please click on the image.

Has Microsoft moved the chart to another part of the site? Apparently not. Searches for the term “Office Online” turned up nothing (except for arcane information from Wikipedia that Microsoft’s Office.com used to be known as Office Online).

‘Web Apps’  Work on the iPad

Actually, the “Office Online” apps referred to in the chart are already available, anyway, but they’re known as “Office Web Apps” and they’re kind of tucked away on Microsoft’s site.

“Office Online” seems to be just a rebranding, although app upgrades are certainly possible (and definitely desirable). The browser-based Web Apps can hardly be described as producing the same kind of “full experience” possible with the MS Office Suite or Office 365.

Office Web Apps are touch-friendly web applications that let you create, edit and share your Excel, Word, PowerPoint and OneNote files from any browser,” proclaims a blurb on the Microsoft site. Supported browsers include Internet Explorer 7 or later, Mozilla Firefox 3.5 or later, Google Chrome, and Safari.

It’s kind of a little known fact, but Web Apps can be used with the iPad, thanks to the Safari browser support. They can’t be used on Android devices, though, and a native edition of Office for the iPad could provide considerably more capabilities.

For all supported browsers, use of the Web Apps requires an Internet connection. You can’t access documents from any cloud storage service except SkyDrive (soon to be rebranded OneDrive). You get basic editing controls, but that’s about it. Web Apps lack features such as revisions tracking in Word, for example. AirPrint printing support is absent, as well. 

‘Office Online’ Chart: Nothing Really New

So did Microsoft accidentally publish the Office Online page prematurely? Was it only a mockup for a possible future product launch? Dis someone at Microsoft intentionally drop a hint? Who knows? When reached by TabletPCReview, a Microsoft spokesperson had no comment on what happened to the web page or on whether Microsoft is really readying an offering called Office Online whatsoever. “Unfortunately, we don’t have any additional information to share at this time,” she replied.

Office Home & StudentAccording to the published screenshots, though, Office Online would include “online versions” of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote, along with seven GB of free storage on SkyDrive.

In comparison, Microsoft’s paid Office 365 products for consumers — Office 365 Home Premium and Office 365 University — would provide the online versions and free storage, in addition to paid online storage options; offline storage; “full installed” editions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, OneNote, Publisher, and Access; 60 minutes per month of Skype calling; and access from Windows Phones, iPhones, and Android phones.

But in fact, Home Premium (priced at $9.99 per month) and University (priced at $80 per year) already do come with all of these features, except that the online versions are referred to as “Web Apps.” Online editions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook are also available for the Mac through Office 365.

Moreover, you don’t even need to subscribe to Office 365 to get the Web Apps. If you have SkyDrive, they’re yours for free.

So ‘Office Online’ might not really bring anything new, aside from higher visibility for the browser apps.

Office Mobile‘Office Mobile’: Limited Functionality

Smartphone access from iPhones and Android phones — supplied through Office Mobile apps — is currently only available to Office 365 users, a situation which would also remain the same, if the information in the chart holds true.

Office Mobile’s functionality is limited, anyway. You can do things like open and edit Office files, share files via email, find and format text. and add, delete and display comments.

But on the App Store and Google Play alike, users complain about limited formatting options and the inability to use any cloud service other than SkyDrive for storage. Some Android users contend that the Android app doesn’t even work as advertised.

“When creating a new document, my only choices [are] Word, Excel, or a few templates,” according to one user review on the App Store. “Assuming I can live with that, once I start a new Word document it seems no options exist other than basic text input. Where’s the ability to create bullets…numbered list(s), insert pictures?”

“Faced with very poor versions of the original files. Unable to properly edit, unable to properly view,” an unhappy user wrote on Google Play.

Full Versions: Only for Windows & Mac

So as things now stand, customers can only use full versions of MS Office on Windows tablets and PCs, and on Macs.

Microsoft seems to be almost giving away Office to makers of mid-sized Windows tablets. Since these tablets are priced at only $300 or so, OEMs can’t be paying much for Microsoft’s office suite.

At the recent CES show, Intel and AMD both announced plans to work with OEMs on devices that can run both Windows and Android — one obvious reason why Microsoft might not want to turn an edition of Office for Android tablets into a major priority. 

Beyond the OEM bundling deals and consumer versions of Office 365, Microsoft sells the full edition of Office for Windows and the Mac as boxed software products for consumers, and in the form of software licenses and Office 365 subscriptions to businesses.

On the Office 365 side, sales are certainly booming. According to numbers released by Microsoft in January, the numbers of Office 365 seats grew 100 percent in the previous quarter, while subscriptions to Office 365 Home Premium rose from 200 million to 350 million from June to December of 2013.

At the same time, Microsoft’s Web Apps — soon to be rechristened “Office Online” — offer only barebones functionality in comparison, as do the Mobile Apps for the iPhone and Android phone.

Putting a big push beyond Office Online might conceivably place somewhat of a dent in Microsoft’s overall Office revenues, simply because more people will be aware of Microsoft’s free alternative.

But given the competition from Google Docs, Open Office, and other free suites, Microsoft might not have much of a choice there.

Needed: Good Apps for iPads & Android Tablets

Without fuller-bodied editions of MS Office for the iPad and Android tablets, however, Microsoft is losing out on revenues that might in fact be gained from the hordes of users who are buying these devices.

There’s another down side to a decision like this, too. A whole generation of kids are growing up now with iPads and Android tablets.

If they’re writing their school papers with Apple’s iWorks or Google’s Quickoffice, for example, they might see little use for MS Office when they get out into the business world.

In creating mobile apps, Microsoft does need to deal with the limitations imposed by small devices and the iOS and Android OS. But the company could be doing a better job of this. With Miramar, Microsoft might have all (or at least some) of this in mind.

Mirimar does seem like deja vu. As described so far, like Office Mobile for iPhone, it would be integrated with SkyDrive/OneDrive, and it would require an Office 365 license.

Hopefully, though, the iPad app would offer greater capabilities than either Office Mobile or Web Apps running on Safari, and Microsoft would ultimately provide a decent Office “experience” on Android tablets, too.

If Microsoft supplies only half-baked iPad and Android apps instead, this is a strategy that’s sure to backfire. The full version of MS Office alone, won’t be enough to lure users to Windows tablets.

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