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Mobile Office: Partial Functionality Not Enough

The rumors are hot again that Microsoft will release an Office version for the iPad and iPhone, but all indications are that it will be little more than a document viewer, of which there are many already for iOS. Microsoft already has a far more capable Office Mobile for Surface, but even that is missing many important features, like editing Excel pivot tables and using Word revisions.

The rumors were true: Microsoft has versions of Office coming for the iPhone, iPad and Android, all slated to be released in early 2013. That said, don't ditch your Intel- (or AMD-) powered notebook just yet: we've got a long way to go before all of Office is that portable.

The Verge recently reported taking a sneak peek at editions of Microsoft Office for various mobile platforms. But based on what they're reporting, what we're getting -- at least at first -- amounts to little more than a Microsoft-sanctioned document viewer.

Office Mobile, as it's called, is quickly shaping up to be little more than a read-only front end for an Office 365 subscription. Some editing features are going to be enabled in the product, but if Office 365 itself is any hint, they're not going to have a fraction of the functionality found in the Microsoft Office we all know and use. It's little more than an officially-branded reader, a way to get people on board the train.

In time it could gain more sophisticated functionality. But what about now? What's ironic is how Microsoft has, in a way, already created and released a mobile version of Microsoft Office that's fully compatible with its full-blown counterpart: Office for the Windows RT edition of Microsoft Surface. It's not feature-for-feature identical to the x86/x64 edition, but it's close enough that vastly more people will feel comfortable with it than they will with what Microsoft currently has planned for Android or iOS.

The people who use Office a lot -- I include myself in that number -- take its feature set seriously. Excel, for instance: if you're a diehard Excel buff, can you imagine living without pivot tables, or any of the other super-crunchy CPU-intensive features that would make a mobile device slow down to a grinding crawl? And even if you opt for the RT edition of Office, you're still not all the way home. Among other things, Pivot tables can be used on the RT version of Office, but not created or edited -- and you need to be a licensed Office 2013 organization to use Office RT legally in a business setting.

Office RT might be the most capable of the Office-on-mobiles products, but there's a long list of Office features it doesn't support:

  • No macros, add-Ins, forms, or custom programs (Word, Excel, PowerPoint).
  • No send email features (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote).
  • No automatic SkyDrive sync integration (Word, Excel, PowerPoint).
  • No editing equations with equation editor 3.0 (Word, Excel, PowerPoint).
  • No "Lync file download" because there's no Lync on RT (all the more remarkable because there is a Lync for iOS.)
  • Word only: no grammar checking for certain language versions of Office (it's a long list -- 15 languages). Spell checking and other proofing components are available for more languages.
  • Excel only: No creating data models.
  • PowerPoint only: No SharePoint slide library ActiveX control, no support for certain legacy media formats, no PowerPoint flash video playback, and no recording narrations.
  • OneNote: No audio and video recording from within OneNote, no importing a document through an attached scanner, and no keyword searching in embedded audio and video.

People who only need casual document editing, even on mobile devices, now have plenty of options, many of them free: OpenOffice, Office Web Apps, Google Docs, you name it. Even iOS itself comes with Office document viewers, pitifully weak as they might be. There's no shortage of this stuff out there, and the quality of it has improved markedly over the past five years. But none of it is a substitute for the breadth of features in full-blown editions of Office, many of which you only retrospectively realize you needed. I wouldn't want to make an investment in a "Mini-Me Office" where change tracking no longer worked, or where font choices no longer showed up properly, or my style declarations didn't apply, or ... you get the idea.

Shoehorning any desktop app into a mobile form factor is always a dicey proposition. Limitations on device space, processing power, screen real estate, and the functionality of the platform all stack the deck against you. This isn't limited to productivity apps like Office, either. Consider Google Chrome for Android. It only bears a passing resemblance to its desktop counterpart, but attempts to make up for this by allowing back-end synchronization of your bookmarks and recently-visited pages. I don't have trouble using it, mind you, it's just that I can see why it had to be so radically reworked to be a mobile app.

Right now, a fully-mobile, fully-featured version of Office is either impossible or impractical. But that only poses a problem for the people trying to bring such a thing to market, not existing Office users. Those who take Office seriously will stick with the hardware -- and software -- they've become comfortable with to get their work done, and those who only need a limited subset of features haven't made themselves dependent on Office anyway.

We're still a long way from someone offering a serious mobile alternative to Office as we know it, and what Microsoft is planning isn't about to change that.

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