Office for iPhone a belated, ambivalent move by Microsoft

What users are really clamoring for is a full Office version for iPads, analysts say

Microsoft's release of an Office suite for the iPhone is too little, too late and yet another timid move aimed at protecting Windows 8 sales at the expense of customer demand for a product like this one for iPads, according to analysts.

Microsoft should have released full, native Office versions for both iPhones and iPads last year or in 2011, but the company has been reticent to do so, likely to use Office as a differentiator for Windows devices, in particular those running Windows 8, analysts said.

Also missing at this stage of the game are Office versions for Android smartphones and tablets, but the biggest gap is the iPad, the world's most popular tablet, which is being used for work by tens of millions of people worldwide.

Thus, Friday's announcement by Microsoft of what it calls Office Mobile for iPhone is underwhelming.

"It's a step in the right direction, but it feels late and too small," said Frank Gillett, a Forrester Research analyst. "They should have done an iPad version along with one for the iPhone sooner."

Another notable limitation of Office Mobile for iPhone is that it requires an Office 365 subscription -- either Office 365 Home Premium or Office 365 ProPlus, which cost, respectively, US$100 per user, per year and $144 per user, per year. People and organizations who instead bought Office 2013 with a perpetual license don't get access to Office Mobile for iPhone.

Given this, Gillett believes that Google's QuickOffice for iOS, which costs $19.99 as a stand-alone product and is free for Google Apps for Business customers, will stand out as a more appealing choice.

If Microsoft is thinking that Office will be a compelling enough reason for a critical mass of current iPad users to switch to Windows 8.1 tablets, it's mistaken, he said, noting that the lack of Office hasn't so far hurt iPad sales.

Michael Silver, a Gartner analyst, said that the Office Mobile for iPhone announcement shows that Microsoft continues to struggle with whether the Office Division's purpose is to primarily sell the suite or instead to prop up Windows.

Not having a native Office version for iPads "is likely to protect or give Windows 8.1 and its new devices coming out in the fourth quarter more of a boost, rather than making it really easy for iPad users to get the perfect visual fidelity on the iPad docs," he said.

The announcement at least shows Microsoft is thinking about Office beyond the world of Windows, and it may be a move to stall the market with the tease that an iPad version may be coming, he said.

"But it's certainly going to be disappointing to folks devoted to their iPads," Silver said.

Microsoft has said that its Office Web Apps -- a browser-based edition of the suite with watered-down versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote -- offers iPad users a good alternative.

Carolina Milanesi, a Gartner analyst, found the timing of Friday's announcement interesting, coming days after Apple announced iWork for iCloud, which makes the Apple productivity suite available via browsers on Apple and Windows machines. "[That gives] iPad users a way to work their way from the iPad to the PC," Milanesi said via email.

Microsoft has native iPad applications for the Office components Lync, SkyDrive and OneNote.

Asked for comment about possible plans for a full Office edition for iPads, a Microsoft spokeswoman said via email: "We built Office Mobile for iPhone to ensure a great Office experience when using a small screen device, similar to Office Mobile on Windows Phone."

She reiterated the recommendation that iPad owners use Office Web Apps. "We have made lots of enhancements to Office Web Apps including an improved touch experience for tablet users."

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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