Office Web Apps upgrade offers better iPad experience

This Web-hosted version of Office also features enhanced performance and improved editing, formatting and collaboration features

An upgrade of Microsoft's Office Web Apps has been finalized, and a combination of enhancements makes this Web-hosted Office version work much better on iPads than previous iterations.

As a result, Microsoft, which has been reticent to create a full-featured Office version for iOS, may be able to at least appease unhappy users who want to use Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote on their iPads.

This new Office Web Apps version has "embraced" HTML5, has been optimized for tablets and smartphones, and has been further "fine tuned" for iOS 6 specifically, Microsoft said on Monday.

With the HTML5 enhancements, Office Web Apps runs in "virtually" all modern browsers, including Internet Explorer, Chrome, Firefox and Safari, without the need for plug-ins, according to Microsoft.

Moreover, as detailed in an August blog post, the new touch capabilities of the new Office Web Apps -- then in preview mode -- were designed "to bring the full-fledged capabilities of viewing and editing" to browsers and tablets such as IE on Windows 8 and mobile Safari on iOS.

At the time, Microsoft said its goals included letting users get up and running with touch-based Office Web Apps right away without learning a new user interface. In addition, Microsoft strived to offer users of touch-based devices the "full feature set of the Office Web Apps, including editing tools."

Microsoft declined to comment on the user experience of Office Web Apps now on iPads. A quick check by IDG News Service of Office Web Apps on an iOS 6 iPad using Safari indeed shows a marked improvement in the interface and user experience, compared with the prior version.

Although Microsoft has released iOS applications for OneNote and Lync, it hasn't ported the full-featured Office suite to Apple's mobile operating system, and it has been criticized for this.

Microsoft probably wants Office to be a selling point for the upcoming Windows 8 and Windows RT tablets, including Microsoft's own Surface device. However, critics point out that keeping Office away from iPads could end up hurting Microsoft more than Apple, since there is no shortage of vendors providing office productivity applications for iOS.

Thus, with this new Office Web Apps version, Microsoft could still protect the competitive edge of the new Windows 8 and RT tablets, while also meeting some of the demands of iPad users, many of whom use the Apple device for both personal and work tasks.

Office Web Apps, launched in 2010, offers a subset of the features found in the PC-installed Office version and is intended primarily as a complement to it, not a replacement. It contains online versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote.

Office Web Apps is a component of the SkyDrive cloud storage service and of the new webmail service Outlook.com. Office Web Apps is also part of the Office 365 cloud-hosted collaboration and messaging suite, which also includes online versions of Exchange, Lync and SharePoint.

This Office Web Apps upgrade, in preview tests since July, is now live on SkyDrive and Outlook.com, Microsoft said Monday. A spokeswoman added that it's being rolled out to Office 365 customers as well, a process expected to be completed by the end of the year.

In addition to the iOS improvements, Office Web Apps has also been tweaked to work better with the final versions of Internet Explorer 10 and Windows 8.

There are also feature improvements in areas such as document authoring, touch interface, collaboration and performance, amounting to what Microsoft described in July as the most significant update of the product to date.

Editing, layout and formatting features have been beefed up, while the interface has been optimized for touch-based screens such as those in tablets, following the design of the new Windows 8 interface, formerly called Metro.

In Monday's blog post, Microsoft specifically highlighted improved rendering of graphics, images and layouts in Word, as well as new capabilities to view and add comments to documents.

Meanwhile, Excel offers what Microsoft calls "essential" spreadsheet features such as merging cells and auto-fitting of columns, while PowerPoint now lets users play back video and audio from presentations, as well as do joint editing and commenting for collaboration. OneNote now features the ability to search on a page or within a section.

Microsoft also said it improved the performance of Office Web Apps, so that basic operations such as typing and formatting don't slow down as documents get larger. The performance improvements are particularly noticeable in Excel and PowerPoint, according to Microsoft.

Office Web Apps is used by about 50 million people per month, according to Microsoft.

Juan Carlos Perez covers enterprise communication/collaboration suites, operating systems, browsers and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Juan on Twitter at @JuanCPerezIDG.

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