Has Microsoft waited too long to release Office for iOS and Android?

The mobile version of Office running on Windows Phone. Credit: CIO

The rumors that Microsoft is planning to release a version of Office for iOS and Android continue to trickle out.

Mac4Ever, a French Apple news and information site, reported yesterday that it had discovered references to Excel for iOS on Microsoft's support site for France. The news bolsters the belief that Microsoft is planning to release at least an iOS version of Office, although there were no matching references on Microsoft's English support site. 

This follows a report last month in The Verge, which claimed that it had confirmed that Microsoft will indeed ship Office Mobile as a free app for iOS and Android next year. While the app itself is reported to be free, an Office 365 subscription will reportedly be required to create and edit documents. The Verge also reported that Office Mobile will allow only "basic document editing" and that it isn't likely to be a replacement for the Windows or Mac versions of Office.

A Microsoft employee in the Czech Republic also hinted at an iOS version of Office back in October, although Microsoft later claimed his remarks were not accurate (without actually denying the existence of the product).

All of this makes it seem pretty clear Microsoft is planning to bring Office to mobile platforms beyond its own Windows family.

But Microsoft may have waited so long that "basic document editing" will not be enough to compel users to adopt Office Mobile and any required subscription cost.

A year ago, this probably wouldn't have been a serious problem, and many business users would have been jumping for joy at the idea of have access to actual mobile Office apps from Microsoft. While there have been a number of Office-type suites available for iOS and Android for quite some time, they have historically fallen short of Office on the desktop in terms of their support for things like formatted text, images and graphs, spreadsheet functions, presentation transitions and effects, template support, and integration with Microsoft's Track Changes feature -- once considered the almost mythical holy grail of mobile productivity and collaboration.

The market of Office alternatives has matured significantly in 2012, however.

Last week, Apple released updates to its iWork apps for iOS that focused almost exclusively on adding multi-platform and Office integration features -- including Track Changes in Word/Pages documents. Despite that news, Apple wasn't the first company to implement a high level of Office integration in either iOS or Android apps. Apple also fell short of what other developers have offered in terms of support for Office features on iOS devices.

As I noted last week, ByteSquared and Quickoffice, which was acquired by Google in June, offered this level of integration earlier this year, and both companies have made reviewing, making, and accepting changes easier than Apple. Quickoffice also provides stellar support for comments -- a feature that Apple didn't even tackle in its update.

Even though only Apple and a couple of developers have included Track Changes support, other companies have produced pretty powerful Office alternatives for both iOS and Android. Documents 2, Documents to Go, Smart Office, Zoho Office, and Google Drive all offer varying feature sets for business users that need Office functionality on their devices.

One advantage that nearly all third-party tools offer (but that Apple doesn't) is the ability to open Office files natively without the need to convert or import them first. Virtually all offer the ability to work with files stored locally on a mobile device as well as a wide range of cloud storage products like Box, Dropbox, Google Docs, Evernote, Huddle, Sugar Sync, and Microsoft's Skydrive (the selection of services varies from one developer to another). iWork and third-party Office-style apps for both iOS and Android can also use a WebDAV share on a company network to open and edit documents.

Simply put, virtually all of the critical Office functionality is already available to iOS and Android users -- and it's available for a one-time app purchase price rather than a subscription service. That purchase price is also typically very minimal. The iWork apps, at $9.99 apiece are probably the most expensive options. Some, like Google Drive, are free, though most tend to fall in the $10 to $20 range.

Users that need Office-like capabilities are also likely to have already made the investment in their tool(s) of choice -- and the range of choices on the market already compete on feature sets, prices, and user interface, which lets users tailor their choices and workflows to meet their individual needs. That's a level of flexibility that Microsoft may not be able to match, at least not initially.

All of this means that the launch of Office Mobile on iOS and Android may not have the big impact that Microsoft probably expects. Even users inclined to select Microsoft's product may find that the pre-existing and more mature choices already on the market offer better feature sets and opt for one or more of them. That, of course, comes down to what "basic document editing" turns out to be in a shipping product.

Ultimately, Microsoft may have the brand awareness around Office, but by waiting three or more years to release an iPad version of Office, it has created a market of competitors and given them years to refine and expand their wares. That could lead Office to be one of the least preferred options for opening Office documents on mobile devices.

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