Let it be known that when I mention Office, I’m really talking about Word. I am never going to take the time to properly test-drive Excel and PowerPoint. I will give my impression after living with Word for about a week. First, I am going to take a closer look at the timing of this release.
Microsoft has been around for a very long time. Office has been around for a very long time. What many don't know is that Office was originally a Mac app, not Windows. Microsoft's relationship with Apple was very close. The point I am getting at is that making software for Apple products is nothing new for Microsoft. They know how to do it, and used to make quite a good living at it. They were not pushing any competitive hardware when the iPad was introduced. Why didn't they announce their intentions to make Office for iPad at that time?
Once Microsoft saw how popular iWork for iPad had become, why didn't they give us Office as a competitive alternative? It is one thing to say that no one wants to do real work on an iPad. It is quite another to see the evidence that they do, and yet continue to ignore the obvious and growing market. The iWork apps have led the App Store charts as the most popular and downloaded paid apps for iOS since the day they were introduced. Even more than games, people wanted to do work on the iPad. Even this did not inform Microsoft's timing.
When Microsoft decided they wanted to enter the game as a direct competitor to the iPad, that would have been an interesting, if not late entry into the game. First, there was the announcement of Windows 8. Clearly, the focus of Windows 8 was to offer a touch-centric environment for a new generation of Windows-based PCs. The first time Balmer stepped on stage to talk about Windows 9 on a touchscreen tablet, he should have also had some sort of demo of Office touch. He didn't. It is as if Microsoft didn't realize the importance of making their most important property fully accessible by touch in the new world of touch they were trying to create.
The last sensible moment for Microsoft to make such a product would have been for the introduction of their own iPad killer“ Surface and Surface Pro. This is when they were intent on showing their hardware partners how it was supposed to be done, as well as the middle finger. When you think about that introduction, it included everything but the kitchen sink. They even had a presenter riding it like a skateboard. Seriously! They wanted to show how durable it was. So they built one with a set of wheels and turned it into a skateboard. I guess that was supposed to distract us from the fact that Microsoft still didn't have a version of Office fit for a touch environment.
So the question is, why now. What happened that made Microsoft change their collective minds about producing a touch version of Office for any platform? It is not just about the iPad. They didn't have one for their own touch-based platform. Was it something Apple did? Perhaps it was something a lot closer to home. There are two things that might well have contributed to opening their eyes:
Microsoft treated touch as a feature and not an experience. Microsoft has been pushing tablet PCs for ages. Despite that push, they still did not grasp the value of touch. The early tablets relied on styluses as pointing devices. It wasn't just a matter of limited screen technology. It was also Microsoft's lack of imagination. They could not perceive of Windows running any other way than what it did on the desktop. Mobile Windows products just took the desktop version of the operating system, and shrank it down to a smaller form-factor. With everything reduced in size, a pointy pointer was required. Touch was never more than a gimmick.
To this day, even with excellent screen technology, Microsoft's idea of a tablet is to take whatever is on the desktop computer and shrink it down to tablet size. That philosophy extends to everything about the experience of using the device. To Microsoft, a tablet is just a tiny computer. To fully use it, you still need a USB port to plug in a mouse. You also need a tiny keyboard replete with a tiny trackpad. Touch is still a mere feature, not a primary experience.
I believe this point was finally clear to Microsoft after they included, and heavily advertised a free copy of Office on every Surface tablet for consumers. They saw nothing incongruous about the fact that using Office required one to switch to desktop mode on a touch tablet, and connect a mouse and keyboard with trackpad. They honestly didn't see the problem, nor did their fans. They didn't understand the difference between touch as a feature and touch as an experience. The failure of Office to sell the Surface was an eye-opener.
Second, enterprise was willing to use a lesser product for a superior experience. Microsoft was insistent that the iPad was little more than an expensive toy for frivolous content consumption. They have been rendered gobsmacked over the fact that their loyal enterprise clients are choosing Apple's mobile and tablet solutions over their own. While they insist that the iPad is not a device on which anyone can get real work done, their clients who do real work are increasingly doing it on the iPad. To this day, Microsoft does not know why that is. But they can no longer ignore the fact. Every iPad used by one of their enterprise customers represents an unsold Office license. Microsoft had no choice but to stop the bleeding.
Office for iPad is all about the enterprise, and has nothing to do with consumers. Once businesses learn that they don't really need Office, it is over for Microsoft. Everyday Office remained unavailable for the iPad was a day that another business customer discovered an alternative to Office. Since the iPad is a complete touch experience and not just a tablet with a touch feature, Office for iPad also had to be a complete touch experience. That insight has informed Office touch for Windows which will not be ready until late in the year.
That is further proof that Microsoft's new commitment to touch comes from Apple, not internally. If it was an internal revelation, Office for touch would have been out a long time ago. It certainly would have been out long before the iPad version was ready. Touch is not core to the Microsoft experience, and they are just now learning how to build around touch, rather than just adding it on as a feature. They were forced to do that for the iPad in ways that they never were for their own products. This is exactly why Apple does not advertise the iPad with a keyboard, or make it usable with an external pointing device. If they did, programers would code for those inputs, and would never create native touch experiences. Microsoft had no such insight or discipline.
At the end of the day, Microsoft learned that Apple had the right of it all along. Office for iPad looks different, but runs a similar feature set to iWork. For the longest time, everyone talked about how much more advanced Excel was to Numbers. The assumption would be that a “real” version of Excel on the iPad would blow Numbers out of the water. Guess what? It doesn't! You will not be doing pivot tables in the iPad version of Excel any more than you will in Numbers. The kind of heavy Excel work I used to do at one of my former jobs cannot be done on Excel for iPad. In fact, I'm not sure what Excel for iPad can do that Pages hasn't already been doing with much more elegance.
When Microsoft demoed Excel for iPad on stage, they didn't show anything it could do that Numbers couldn't. In fact, the demo looked a lot like the one Apple did for Numbers all those years ago. The same is true for Word and PowerPoint. When demonstrating Word, Microsoft misled the audience about the comparison. They were suggesting that the dynamic text flow around images was unique to Word, when in fact, what they demoed was exactly what Apple demoed during their introduction of Pages. Microsoft showed no unique features of Office of iWork, and lacks key iWork features like sharing out to other formats and programs, and printing.
Office for iPad also breaks an important accessibility feature. Speak selection is not available in the context menu. Microsoft also uses it's own spelling engine which is not as good as Apple's. Office for iPad is only good for people who are forced to live in the Office ecosystem. In that case, they are likely already paying the $99 per year ransom. For those who aren't, there is simply no reason to do so. iWork is just fine, maybe better.