Microsoft Office for iPad arrived this week, two years overdue, and with millions of tablet users already entrenched in Google Docs, iWork, and other alternatives. But now that the desktop era's top productivity software has finally landed on the world's most popular mobile device, here's the worst thing I can say: Office for iPad is the best tablet work software so far.
No, Word, Excel, and PowerPoint for iPad aren't perfect. Want to use the new apps to print a document? Too bad. You'd like to edit documents without signing up for Office 365? Sorry, you'll have to use Office Online, the browser-based version.
Office for iPad won't change the market. The apps might set the standard in their category, but it's not clear how many people care about that category to begin with.
For millions of professional users, Office for iPad is a no-brainer. Office 365 subscriptions were already growing rapidly, and the new apps only sweeten the offer. Road warriors rely on iPads to review and annotate documents on the go. With native Office apps, they now can do so with not only perfect file fidelity, but also a wide range of tools and strong cloud support.
For consumers, the outlook is murkier. Had Office been available to iPad users at a reasonable cost back in 2011, competing products might never have gained traction. Will people who do only light work care about Office's most sophisticated features? Will they accept recurring Office 365 costs when so many viable options are free?
Some people might be won over. I wrote parts of this article using Word on a non-Retina iPad Mini -- and it was easier than I'd anticipated. I began the story while crammed into a crowded train. Using OneDrive, I picked it up seamlessly on my PC once I got back to my desk.
But am I about to stick my laptops in a drawer and rely mostly on my iPad? Hell, no.
Typing on glass simply isn't as fast and accurate as typing on a full keyboard. There's a reason iPad commercials show people using their devices to photograph epic waterfalls at the top of the world, not writing the next great work of literature. In a pinch, could I use Office on the iPad to create documents? Absolutely. Would doing so be preferable to other methods? No.
When modifying or reviewing a document, though, the apps are outstanding. I can't see a student composing an entire essay on an iPad, but I can imagine a professor using an iPad to annotate essays and provide feedback. And for some layout work, the touch interface is great. When you press on a picture in a Word document and begin moving the image, surrounding text adjusts dynamically. It's an intuitive and pleasing experience that makes it possible to polish a presentation while walking between meetings.
Office for iPad represents a big shift in Microsoft's strategy. When new CEO Satya Nadella introduced the apps, he repeatedly said they'll help users "do more" -- a slogan borrowed from the Ballmer era. But under the previous regime, no one at Microsoft would have ever suggested people should "do more" on an iPad. Ballmer famously claimed that his children were forbidden from using Apple products, but during Thursday's press conference, Microsoft employees talked openly about owning iPads.
For his part, Nadella claimed Microsoft held nothing back in creating products. He said the company is focused on delivering the best user experience possible on all platforms. Compared to the Windows jingoism of yesteryear, this is anathema. It raises obvious questions about Microsoft's device strategy, and how Windows will remain relevant as the cloud becomes the nexus of the software world. Nadella confidently promised to deliver answers to these questions next week, when the company will host Build, its conference for developers.
Despite these uncertainties, Office for iPad is the crème de la crème in its genre. The apps generated immediate interest, at least in their cost-free form. By Friday, Word, Excel, and PowerPoint occupied the top three spots among free apps in the iPad's app store. Microsoft's recently introduced OneNote app was right behind them at number four.
What do the new apps offer? Read on for the answers to seven key questions about Microsoft's Office for iPad.