Hands-on with Office Mobile for iPhone

Microsoft Office Mobile is a front-end to that service, not a standalone productivity suite

By now, you've no doubt heard that Microsoft Office Mobile for iPhone is now available for iPhone. (Yup, you read that right: It's iPhone-only.) The question is: Should you care?

That depends largely on whether you're already a subscriber to Microsoft's Office 365 and Skydrive services, which (for personal use) cost from $100 to $120 annually. (If you want to give the app a test run, Microsoft offers a 30 day free trial of Office 365, which you can set up at the Office 365 website.) Because, really, Microsoft Office Mobile is a front-end to that service, not a standalone productivity suite.

Getting connected

Office Mobile does give you access to the three legs of the Microsoft Office suite: Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. Each of the three iOS apps is able to read and edit documents created using their related PC, Mac, or Web applications; if you want to create new documents on the iPhone, Office Mobile lets you do so with Word and Excel, but not PowerPoint.

When you sign in with your Office 365 account from the mobile app, you should also have access to your SkyDrive folder and be able to see any of the files you have stored there. But, after installing the app on two different devices, I found that only one automatically connected to my SkyDrive. For the second install, I needed to use the app's Add a Place tool and choose SkyDrive. Add a Place is also the way you connect to your business' or school's Office 365 SharePoint.

Once connected, Office Mobile displays a file browser with buttons at the bottom which you tap to see your recently used documents, open existing documents, create new ones, or change the app's settings. To create new documents, you tap the app's New button and choose a starting template, either the blank one or one of the three templates provided for Word and Excel, and the app opens a fresh document based on your selection.

Oddly (and inconveniently) the app only lets you create documents; you can't create folders for organizing your documents. You can't add or save files to existing folders, either; they all go in the root directory of your SkyDrive. You can still manage documents using SkyDrive's Web-based interface or your Mac.

You'll be surprised to discover that Office Mobile eschews iOS' autosave features and expects you to save your documents manually--this despite the fact that every other iOS app since the beginning of iOS-time automatically saves anything you're working on. Also, when you do save changes, even on the smallest of documents, it can take several seconds before the SkyDrive save completes.

Word

Working with Word documents in Office Mobile is...interesting. Typing is simple, easy, and works as it should. In fact, Office Mobile feels like a very basic text editor.

Although it isn't obvious until you start using the app, there are two editing modes when working with a document in Word. There is a Preview mode that allows you to select and make changes to formatting of your selected text and an editing mode that allows you to type new text. These two modes use two different methods for selecting text, so you need to change the way you work depending on the mode you're in.

In editing mode, Word uses a non-standard means of text selection: You double-tap a word to select it then use the selection tool as you normally would. Given that this deviates from the way you normally select text in iOS, I found this difficult to discover. Once text is selected you can change its formatting, copy, paste, or add a comment to the selected text, but there is no option for cutting the selected text. Using editing mode you can also change formatting where your cursor appears in the document, so anything new you type will reflect the changes you've made.

In Preview mode, select your text the way you normally do in any other iOS app, tap the text formatting tool, and make your formatting changes. But, once you've made changes this way you are once again working in the app's editing mode, so you can no longer select your text the way you did in Preview mode, instead you have to double-tap the text to make further formatting changes.

Excel

Of the three Office Mobile apps, Excel is the most polished. Office Mobile's spreadsheet tool offers over 125 built-in functions, the ability to select spreadsheet cells to create charts, and, when editing functions, supports tapping cells to add their contents to the function field you're creating. But it has a frustrating lack of intelligence when it comes to the type of data you're editing in a cell. So, while it's possible to change the format of a cell to date, percentage, or currency format, the app's keypad doesn't automatically recognize those differences.

It also fails to differentiate between text and numbers. So, even if you have a spreadsheet cell containing numeric data, you still get a standard QWERTY keyboard; that means tapping a couple of keys before you can enter the data you need. Contrast this with Numbers, Apple's spreadsheet app, which is aware of the kind of data being entered in a field and adjusts the keyboard accordingly.

Office Mobile's Excel app has the added benefit of letting you create charts by selecting a range of cells, choosing the formatting tool, and then selecting Create Chart. The app offers six different chart types; when you select the type of chart you want to create, the app adds a new sheet containing the chart type you've selected. Updating your spreadsheet data adjusts the chart accordingly. Unfortunately, once you create a chart, or if you are working with a chart created using any other version of Excel, it is not possible to change the chart type, delete the chart, or sheets created when creating a new chart. In fact, you can not delete any sheets using the iOS app.

PowerPoint

As noted earlier, you can not create PowerPoint presentations using Office Mobile, but you can edit any of your existing presentations and, if you connect your phone to a projector, display, or television, you can use the app as a presentation tool. Editing is limited to changing the order in which slides appear in your presentation and making changes to the content of text and comments that appear in existing slides and to your slide notes. You can not make changes to transitions, images, or create new text boxes. But, as a presentation tool, it works pretty well. It's the kind of app that, if you're in a pinch and have the necessary adapters, could save your bacon if something happens to your computer.

If you've used PowerPoint or any other presentation tool in the past, you know presentation files can be behemoths. Unfortunately, I found that my connection to SkyDrive consistently timed out when I tried to upload changed presentations. In many cases, that was because my phone went to sleep before the save finished. But even when I made sure the phone stayed awake, Office Mobile had difficulty getting large files from my phone to my SkyDrive.

SkyDrive integration

In my initial testing I found that the Office app's SkyDrive integration was spotty at best. (To be fair, this is also true of Microsoft's SkyDrive app.) Most documents created using the app or Microsoft's Web apps synchronized with SkyDrive, but depending on their size, uploading files from my phone, had those timeout issues.

Documents created on my Mac and saved in my Mac's SkyDrive folder often took hours to appear on my phone. This may be a limitation of SkyDrive on my Mac, but, if you're accustomed to Dropbox, which synchronizes immediately, it will be an unwelcome surprise to anyone who thinks the doc they just saved in SkyDrive will be available on their phone.

I also found that when saving changes to an existing document, SkyDrive often reported conflicts with an existing copy of the document on SkyDrive. This, despite the fact that I was the only one editing the document and only on my phone. Subsequent saves worked, but it almost never allowed me to save changes to documents the first time I tried.

Final impressions

While these are only initial impressions, and fuller use may turn up solutions to some of these problems, on first look this app does not impress. Yes, it's Microsoft Office on your iPhone, but it's Office in air quotes--which is to say that, while you can create and edit Office documents on your phone, there isn't much here in the way of added value and, in fact, may only introduce frustration to your daily grind. Also, the fact that it's an iPhone-only app seems like an unnecessary limitation on Microsoft's part. While it's possible to use the Web-based version of Office on your iPad, a native iPad app seems like a more obvious solution.

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Jeffery Battersby

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