Microsoft CEO Nadella to unveil Office on iPad next week

Long wait almost over, reports claim; the hard work of selling the suite to begin

Microsoft will announce Office apps for Apple's iPad on March 27, according to a pair of reports Monday.

CEO Satya Nadella will take part in his first public press conference starting at 10 a.m. PT (1 p.m. ET) that day, according to ZDNet and The Verge, which both reported on the event yesterday. The press conference, which is an invitation-only event, will be "focused on the intersection of cloud and mobile computing," but Microsoft has declined to say more.

The topic is no surprise: On Nadella's first day as CEO, he used the phrase "mobile-first, cloud-first" to describe his strategy for the company.

And the San Francisco location and timing of the press conference are interesting, and bolster claims that Microsoft will trot out Office on the iPad. At the same hour and in the same city, the Macworld/iWorld conference, the country's largest open-to-the-public show focused on Apple, will kick off at the Moscone Center.

Macworld/iWorld is hosted by IDG World Expo, an arm of IDG, the parent company of both Computerworld and Macworld, and will run March 27-29. Neither Microsoft nor Apple are exhibitors at the show.

If Microsoft does pull the shroud from Office on the iPad, it will put an end to years of speculation about whether, and if so when, the company dumps its strategy of linking the suite with Windows in an effort to bolster the latter's chances on tablets.

Under that strategy, Microsoft kept Office for its own Windows tablets, including the struggling Surface and Surface Pro, and those of its OEM (original equipment manufacturer) partners as a sales tool. Many outside observers have painted the strategy as a flop, and have pointed to slow sales of Windows tablets of all types as proof.

"I never believed that having Office on a Windows tablet was the key differentiator that Microsoft believed it to be," said Carolina Milanesi, strategic insight director of Kantar Worldpanel ComTech, in an email early Tuesday. "While users wanted it on the iPad, it was not enough [for them] to be wanting a Windows tablet."

Talk of Office on the iPad first heated up in December 2011, when the now-defunct The Daily reported Microsoft was working on the suite, and added that the software would be priced at $10 per app. Two months later the same publication claimed it had seen a prototype and that Office was only weeks from release.

That talk continued, on and off, for the next two years, with Microsoft occasionally dropping hints, such as last October, when then-CEO Steve Ballmer said Office on the iPad would appear, but only after a touch-enabled edition for Windows had been added to the line-up. More often, officials said Office was on the iPad as they pointed to Office Web Apps, the browser-based versions since renamed Office Online.

Those online apps were good enough until apparently they weren't.

Analysts, both those from the technology industry as well as from Wall Street, have long urged Microsoft to free Office from its Windows chains and make the suite available on other platforms, particularly the iPad, with some placing big bets that Microsoft could rake in billions. As Baller announced his retirement, and Nadella took his place six weeks ago, they renewed those appeals.

Instead, Tami Reller, Microsoft's then-marketing manager, seemed to hedge last month when asked about Office on the iPad, repeatedly using the word "thoughtful" to describe the release planning and timing. That caused ZDNet's Mary Jo Foley -- who yesterday cited anonymous sources when she said that Nadella was probably going to announce the suite next week -- to counter that Office on iPad was closer to release than most thought, and would occur before mid-year, before Ballmer's promised touch-first version for Windows.

If Nadella does lead an announcement next week, it will show that Foley was right and that Reller, now heading for the door at Redmond, was simply dissembling.

Microsoft may announce Office on the iPad March 27, but there's no guarantee that it will be for sale or download then: Microsoft has a habit, more than many of its rivals, of pre-announcing software before it's publicly available.

When Office on the iPad does hit the market, virtually every analyst believes that Microsoft will tie it to Office 365, just as it did the iPhone and Android versions of Office Mobile last summer.

In an interview last week about Microsoft's overall Office strategy, Wes Miller of Directions on Microsoft, a Kirkland, Wash. research firm that covers only Microsoft, reaffirmed his belief that Office on the iPad would require an Office 365 subscription.

Office 365 is Microsoft's software-as-a-service program which charges consumers $70-$100 annually and businesses $150-$364 per user per year to run the suite on one or more devices. The sudden unveiling last week of Office 365 Personal, a new $70 per year plan for home users, was seen as a harbinger of Office on iPad, as it allowed customers to install applications on one PC or one Mac, and one tablet.

"I would expect Microsoft to link Office [on the iPad] to [Office] 365 as it would have a wider impact on the ecosystem, and also as it would better fit in the 'cloud picture' Nadella has painted already," said Milanesi. "I would say [that's] a necessary move to make sure their ownership of the enterprise business does not weaken."

"Ecosystem" has been a buzz word of analysts lately. When Microsoft shipped a new free version of OneNote for the Mac yesterday, and simultaneously ripped the price tag from the note-taking application for Windows, experts pegged it as an "ecosystem play," a move to make Microsoft's entire spectrum of devices, software and services more attractive to customers.

But is Microsoft coming to the party too late, long after the guests have paired off and gone home? Last year, some thought 2014 would be a mistake. More recently, other analysts said Office on the iPad might get a lukewarm reception because in the intervening years users have found other solutions in the absence of an official Office from Microsoft.

In other words, Microsoft missed the boat.

Milanesi didn't agree. "[By at] least opening up Office to iPad they might still get users to Office and to the wider Microsoft ecosystem versus opening up opportunities for Apple or other productivity apps to capture users," she said today. "Although users have found alternatives, [those] experiences are not perfect when it comes to editing and formatting. Of course price will be critical as Microsoft cannot go into this thinking that they can price it as high as they could have, say, two years ago, as alternatives are available and over time they got better."

Nor did she think that ditching Windows' exclusive hold on Office for tablets would hurt sales of those devices, or much boost iPad sales, the two-headed monster that Microsoft presumably feared, and the reason it withheld Office from non-Windows tablets.

"The fact that Office will now be on iPad does not impact sales of Windows tablet in any considerable manner, in my view," Milanesi said, pointing out that there are hundreds of other programs, including those custom-built by businesses, that run only on Windows. "Although it might make BYOD [bring your own device] easier for iPad, there are still limitations as to what you can do if enterprises are not delivering iOS enterprise-class apps that used to run on Windows. In other words if all I can do at work is email, Word and Excel, I am limited as to how productive I can be."

According to Foley, Microsoft will webcast its March 27 press conference, another strong signal that while the theme may be cloud and mobile, the real focus, and the reason to tune in, will be Office on the iPad. Microsoft has yet to name a URL where that webcast will be broadcast.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

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This story, "Microsoft CEO Nadella to unveil Office on iPad next week" was originally published by Computerworld.

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