Office for iPad in 2014? Big mistake

If a new timetable report is accurate, Microsoft's making the wrong move, say analysts

A purported Microsoft roadmap for future releases of its Office suite showed a fall 2014 launch date for Office on Apple's iOS and Google's Android mobile operating systems, according to an online report.

Mary-Jo Foley, who blogs at ZDNet, citing an unnamed source and an unpublished timetable, pegged the long-rumored, long-expected Office for the iPad and Android tablets as appearing in Oct. 2014, or 18 months from now.

Other milestones spelled out in the alleged roadmap, said Foley, included an October 2013 refresh to Office 2013 and Office 365 -- part of the "Blue" project to kick off a faster development and release tempo -- and an April 2014 debut of a new version of Office for Macs.

But it was the date for a tablet-ready Office aimed at iOS and Android that drew the most attention.

"That's too late for Office on iPad, the market is moving too fast," said Frank Gillett, an analyst with Forrester Research, in an email today. "It would be a mistake. Users and software vendors will have solved the productivity document issue by then -- Google's buy of Quickoffice is a strong indicator of that -- and it will cause customers to drift away from Microsoft."

Google acquired Quickoffice in 2012, and rolled that firm's development team into the Google Apps group. Last week, Google launched free iPhone and Android Quickoffice apps -- the latter for both smartphones and tablets -- for Google Apps for Business customers, the cloud-based suite that costs $50 per user for a one-year subscription. Google issued a similar free app for the iPad in late 2012.

Bob O'Donnell of IDC also viewed an Oct. 2014 ship date as a blunder.

"That's the wrong choice," O'Donnell said in a Wednesday interview. "At the end of the day, Microsoft has to decide whether they are a Windows company or an Office company. They have to come to terms with that."

From O'Donnell's perspective, Microsoft should lean toward Office, not Windows, because the latter's sales are increasingly dismal. Tying Office to Windows -- as Microsoft has done, and assuming the Oct. 2014 date is accurate, will continue to do -- shuts off a revenue source for Office: Non-Windows devices.

"Increasingly, I think Office's strengths are being weakened by the Windows issues they're having," O'Donnell said, citing weak sales of Windows 8- and Windows RT-powered tablets.

Most analysts and Microsoft-watchers believe that Microsoft has hesitated to sell Office on iOS and Android because the company's Windows group sees the suite as a major selling point for its Windows tablets. Wanting to retain that advantage, the Windows team has blocked the move. Meanwhile, the Office group has likely lobbied for a release sooner rather than later by claiming it can book impressive revenue.

Previously, experts have said that the debate, as crucial as it was to the direction of two of the company's biggest revenue generators, would reach, and be decided at, the CEO level.

An Oct. 2104 launch timetable for Office on iOS and Android signals that the Windows team won the argument.

"Office remains shackled to Office," said Gillett in an interview Tuesday, before Foley reported on the later launch for iOS and Android. "That means it remains restricted. Microsoft needs to break [Office] out of its Windows dependency."

Microsoft has remained tight-lipped about its plans for Office, but in hindsight, comments made by several executives, including CEO Steve Ballmer and the head of the Office division, Kurt DelBene, hinted at a later release of the suite on rivals' tablets.

In February, for instance, DelBene sidestepped questions about Office on iOS, and in response, touted the online versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint, which are free to use but accessible only through a browser.

The same month, Baller used a nearly-identical talking point in an interview with BusinessWeek. "We do have a way for people always to get to Office through the browser, which is very important. And we'll see what we see in the future," Ballmer told the financial news publication.

While some have speculated that Microsoft could rake in billions from the sale of Office on iOS and iPad, most experts don't expect the company to sell them as stand-alone apps on the Apple App Store or Google Play.

Instead, they figure that Microsoft will tie the mobile suite to Office 365, its line of rent-not-own subscription plans. The $100-per-year Office 365 Home Premium, for example, gives a customer the right to install Office on up to five Windows PCs and Macs, as well as five mobile devices, including smartphones and tablets.

In that scenario, Microsoft would offer the Office iOS and Android apps free of charge; those apps, however, would only work, or do more than allow document viewing, when the user was logged in from an active Office 365 account.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is gkeizer@ix.netcom.com.

Read more about mobile/wireless in Computerworld's Mobile/Wireless Topic Center.

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Gregg Keizer

Computerworld (US)
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