Yawns may greet Microsoft Office port to iOS and Android

Mobile Office is a document viewer, basic editing, and cloud features

Microsoft's most iconic application suite -- Microsoft Office -- will be moving off the PC and the Windows OS to two mobile platforms, iOS and Android, in early 2013. But will customers in the enterprise, where Office has been a PC standard for years, really care?

The new mobile version of Office will be a free viewing app on iOS and Android for Office documents, including Excel, PowerPoint and Word, according to several sources cited by The Verge in its reporting of the upcoming introduction. Users will be required to have a Microsoft online account, as they do today for Microsoft's SkyDrive and OneNote apps. Initially, only "basic editing" will be enabled, according to The Verge, through a subscription to Microsoft's Web-based office applications, Office 365.

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Office on Windows PCs and laptops is a major driver of Microsoft revenues and profits and has been for years. Corporate PCs typically are purchased with Office installed as part of their standard software load. But in just over three years, the iPhone and now iPad have made Apple the leader in mobile devices for business users. And many of these users have found workable substitutes to Office, whether via third-party apps or online services such as Google Apps.

"Overall, I can't help but be a little under-excited at this point," says Jeremy Allen, chief technology officer for Intrepidus Group, a company that specializes in helping enterprises to build secure mobile apps. "I think users that wanted this type of capability have already got it."

Office seems unlikely to add much beyond what users already have, through apps such as Apple's own iWork office suite. These "do a decent enough job at working with Microsoft Office documents," Allen says.

"The iOS and Android support are too little, too late," says James Gordon, vice president of IT for Needham Bank, a small community bank based on Needham, Mass. iPads and iPhones have become the dominant computing platform for nearly all employees. "Apple iWork and Google Docs are good alternatives for editing on mobile devices, or on a computer for that matter."

Gordon sees mobile Office on these rival platforms as creating more complexity for enterprise IT at a time when they're trying to reduce it. "While Office is an enterprise standard, distributed document workflow and editing is something [that] businesses are trying to avoid," he says. "All this will do is increase document fragmentation amongst devices, and give IT executives yet another headache as they try to prevent people from sharing documents with Microsoft as a central repository."

The bank has shifted from a distributed document model to a centralized one, based on Microsoft SharePoint 2010, with Office 2010 Web apps built in, Gordon says. "This creates a private cloud where data and documents are accessible, and editable I might add, but all data and document revisions are held centrally and not distributed," he explains.

The absence of Office as a native mobile app on iOS and Android opened the door to a flock of software vendors who have created a wide range of apps and services to fill that void. Brainshark modified its Web authoring tool in 2011 to create SlideShark, a native iOS app that takes an original PowerPoint file, converts it into proprietary format that faithfully mimics PowerPoint's features, and runs it natively on an iPhone or iPad. SlideShark will complement Office on iOS, says Brainshark Chief Marketing Officer Andy Zimmerman.

"Users would value the ability to create and edit PowerPoints on their iPad or iPhone with MS Office, and then use SlideShark not only to show those presentations, but also to manage, share and track the content," he says.

But others say that Microsoft has ceded critical ground to the third parties, and faces an uphill climb to reclaim it.

Microsoft's decision to port Office "shows the threat that Microsoft feels in the enterprise," says Jordan Stolper, CEO of StoryDesk, a New York City software firm that offers a Web-based authoring tool, with an extensive set of ready-to-use templates for quickly creating mobile apps for catalogs, sales and marketing presentations, order-taking and the like.

Users log in to the StoryDesk website, select templates, and upload product photos and a wealth of data, including descriptions, SKUs, pricing information and even discounts. The data is securely stored by StoryDesk. The end result is a native iOS app on the iPad, displaying the full catalog and save orders even without a wireless connection. [For one business user's case study see "Padlock salesman trades 30-pound sample case for 1.35-pound iPad"]

iPad users have turned to non-Microsoft software such as QuickOffice, CloudOn and SlideShark, says Stolper, a move that "pushed ownership of mobile users to third parties. "Which is, I suspect, partly why Google bought QuickOffice," he adds.

Another alternative is online services such as Box or Dropbox, which lets users and companies store a range of documents in the cloud where they can be accessed from mobile devices anywhere. "Which means that Microsoft is [also] ceding 'mobile + cloud' territory to third parties, an even scarier scenario," Stolper says.

That's because this combination poses an "existential threat" to Microsoft because it could cause users, and enterprise companies, to abandon Microsoft as a platform, at least for mobility.

It's this marriage of mobile devices and cloud services that may be Microsoft's real opportunity, and target, says Benjamin Levy, a principal with Solutions Consulting, a Los Angeles firm that specializes in Apple and iOS deployments for enterprise customers.

"The place where I think Microsoft can still succeed is in cloud connectivity using its Office 365 and SkyDrive products," Levy says. "Document creation for word processing, spreadsheets and presentations is already functional on iOS. But storage and corporate connectivity and collaboration can be difficult to make easy for users."

"If Microsoft can deliver a compelling solution that allows corporate customers to more completely integrate into existing document storage and collaboration models, then I think they'll be welcomed," Levy says.

"What Microsoft fails to account for is that mobile has unique attributes and uses," says StoryDesk's Stolper. "They continue to view the iPad as a [potential] laptop replacement, when the analysis needs to be on use cases, not on hardware. The iPad is a supplement to some existing uses, like Excel for financial modeling, which is a poor use of the tablet."

The real opportunity isn't in porting an existing PC application and adapting it to mobile devices, Stolper says, but in delivering productivity tools designed from the start for those "use cases that mobile can do differently and better."

John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for Network World. : http://twitter.com/johnwcoxnww john_cox@nww.com

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