TECH REVIEW

Office Mobile for iPhone wasn't worth the wait

Editing, syncing are uneven; it's not altogether free
2013-06-29T00:00:00Z Office Mobile for iPhone wasn't worth the waitRich Jaroslovsky Bloomberg News Arizona Daily Star
June 29, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Microsoft's long-anticipated Office Mobile app for Apple's iOS operating system turns out to be a total nonevent.

Ever since the iPhone ushered in the era of ubiquitous mobile computing - and especially since the release of the first iPad began a shift away from traditional personal computers - the question has been whether and how Microsoft Office would adapt.

Here's the answer: Grudgingly, and not very well. Office Mobile, which slipped into Apple's App Store with little fanfare, turns out to be a stripped-down add-on that will leave both Office and Apple users wondering, "Is that all there is?"

Office Mobile is technically free. But it's useless unless you've already paid at least $100 for a year of Office 365, Microsoft's effort to convert its traditional shrink-wrapped, purchase-one-time-only software business into a pay-as-you-go subscription model. (By contrast, the version of Office Mobile included on devices running Microsoft's own Windows Phone software doesn't require an Office 365 subscription.)

That's just one of the limitations the company has imposed on its iOS app. Another is that it's intended only for the iPhone; there's no separate version designed to take advantage of the iPad's larger display.

Office Mobile will still run on an iPad; in fact, I'm typing these words on one, using the docking-station keyboard Apple introduced when it unveiled the iPad three years ago. But it's just a blown-up view of the phone app. Microsoft says iPad users are better off using its online Office Web Apps.

Office Mobile contains pocket versions of three of the Office desktop suite's core applications: Word, Excel and PowerPoint. There's no version of Outlook, the e-mail and calendar program, but I didn't find its absence to be a big deal, since the iPhone's built-in mail and calendar programs already work and play well with Microsoft.

To benefit from Office Mobile, you have to use Microsoft's free SkyDrive cloud-based service to store your Office documents; other popular storage options like Dropbox and Google Drive aren't supported.

When I logged into the app for the first time, all the SkyDrive documents I had previously created using Office 365 on my Windows PC were waiting for me. I could edit them, sort of, and create new ones, sort of.

This column, for instance, was started in the Mobile version of Word, and I also created a couple of Excel spreadsheets. But once I did, there was a whole lot I couldn't do with them.

I could enter text and formulas, make and review comments, and change the color and size of text. But I couldn't create or edit a macro, switch to a different font or even check my spelling.

PowerPoint is even more limited. There's no way to begin a presentation, or even to insert a new slide into an existing one. So if you have a last-minute brainstorm on the way to your meeting, you're out of luck.

Office Mobile did allow me to work on documents even when I wasn't connected to the Internet; my changes were saved on the phone until I got back online. But the syncing process with SkyDrive wasn't smooth. Instead of having my files upload automatically after I reconnected, I had to go back into the app and manually force it to sync.

Even then, the app continued to display a "Couldn't upload" message, and the document was saved to SkyDrive as a second copy rather than overwriting the original. Microsoft says it isn't sure what happened, but that the syncing should have been automatic and the new version should have overwritten the old one.

Microsoft's arms-length attitude toward iOS stands in stark contrast to arch-rival Google, which devotes considerable resources to putting its most important software onto rival platforms. (The Google Now intelligent-assistant software, for instance, is more widely available on iOS devices than on Google's own Android operating system.)

Office Mobile's shortcomings mightn't be so obvious if there weren't so many higher-quality Office-compatible apps already available for iPads and iPhones. These include Apple's own iWork suite ($30) and Quickoffice Pro ($15 for iPhone, $20 for iPad), which Google bought last year. Still, none of them is the official Microsoft-endorsed solution.

A lot of iOS users have wanted to get Microsoft Office onto their devices in the worst way. And that's just how they've gotten it.

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