Do We Really Need Office on an iPad?

In recent weeks, the clamoring for Microsoft to move its most popular productivity software to Apple's dominant tablet platform has reached fever pitch. To which I say: "Does anyone really work that way on an iPad?"

When it comes to translating established technology between platforms, all bets are off.

But don’t tell that to analysts betting on Microsoft bringing its flagship Office to the iPad this year.

The mentality that Office is going to suddenly come in and standardize the way people work across the board … well, to be honest, it feels naïve.

One analyst, Morgan Stanley’s Adam Holt, stirred the pot recently. In his view, Microsoft is likely costing itself a fortune by not launching an iPad app. Holt suggested that, based on the name alone, the company could sell the app for $60 and millions of people would buy it—and by not doing so, Microsoft is costing itself $2.5 billion in revenue yearly.

“Now, Holt’s math here is back-of-the-napkin at best, but even so, it makes a valid point,” argues AllThingsD writer John Paczkowski. “By not releasing Office for iPad, the company is surely leaving a bunch of milk in one of its most important cash cows.”

It’s a fair assessment, except for one thing: Office is an app for desktops. It was built for desktops, and it’s a philosophy designed for desktops. While there are apps on the iOS platform that do roughly what Word and Excel do (and while the recently released Office 2013, mirroring Microsoft Windows as a whole, is a bit more touch-friendly), the problem is this: Is it philosophically where we are in 2013?

In an era where Dropbox and Evernote are quickly gaining strength as organizational tools and we’re taking notes and organizing at our own pace, we’re working differently. There are new ways to write documents and new ways to be productive. And the mentality that Office is going to suddenly come in and standardize the way people work across the board … well, to be honest, it feels naïve.

(Which is not to say that there isn’t room for such an app at all: QuickOffice, a Google-owned product that sells for $19.99 and mimics many of Office’s capabilities, has done well for itself. And the free CloudOn offers a lightweight alternative for quick document-editing and sharing, providing a bridge between desktop and tablet work. But for many people, this style of productivity is a mismatch for this type of device, beyond light edits.)

Work Your Own Way

The reason the iPad has proven such a success among business users is that it’s taken a problem that plagued desktop platforms—the shoehorning of numerous styles of working into one or two kinds of productivity software—and democratized the process. Now, instead of choosing one size that fits all ahead of time, we let users pick whatever apps work best for them, with the idea that they can plug back into standardized formats, such as HTML or DOCX. (Web-based platforms—think Google Docs—work the same way.) The fact that apps are so cheap goes a long way on this front.

If you go to your association’s employees and ask them how they actually use their iPads, 10 to one, you’ll get numerous different answers. There will probably be some similarities, yes, but the differences—in the form of apps and sites—will be telling.

And these smaller-scale apps are usurping big players, too. One of the apps I featured in my recent roundup of Instagram alternatives, Snapseed, is essentially a reinvention of Photoshop for the iPad, unhindered by the complicated traditions 20 years of updates chiseled into Adobe’s creation. Adobe’s Photoshop Express is a direct competitor in that space, but Snapseed, an app Google recently bought, is arguably the better app.

To put it simply, these changes in the computing landscape are opening up new doors to productivity. Expecting Office to come in and take over the market in one fell swoop assumes that these doors are going to close immediately.

That philosophy isn’t Bring Your Own Device (BYOD). That philosophy is Use Your Old Platform (UYOP), and it’s the antithesis of thinking that led to the iPad’s rise in the first place.

A focus on portability and flexibility will get us further than an Office-like experience on a tablet.


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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