CloudOn: A Better Way to Do Microsoft Office on Your iPad, for Free

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Harry McCracken / TIME/com

From Quickoffice to Documents to Go to Apple’s own iWork programs, there’s no shortage of iPad apps that let you view and edit Microsoft Office documents. But as anyone who relies on Office to do real work can tell you, there are times when what you need is Office, period.

For instance, no iPad word processor supports Word’s Track Changes revision marking, a must for collaborative editing. PowerPoint presentations never look quite the same in other presentation packages as they do in PowerPoint. And iPad productivity tools tend to choke on files that are too large and/or complex.

Back in January, an iPad app called CloudOn solved these problems by letting you use Office itself on an iPad. It did so by hosting Word, Excel and PowerPoint on its own servers and hooking them up to Dropbox for file storage. It wasn’t without its rough spots, but it worked quite well.

Now CloudOn is back with version 2.0 of its app and service. It now lets you use Box as well as Dropbox for storage, adds Adobe Reader to the available apps and incorporates a variety of performance and usability tweaks.

As before, CloudOn is free. The company behind it says that it plans to switch to a “freemium” policy at some point, with both free and for-pay options. For now, though, it lets iPad users do something which you can’t do on a Windows PC: use full-blown Office applications at no charge.

CloudOn makes for an interesting contrast with OnLive Desktop, another service which lets you use Office on an iPad (and, in OnLive’s case, Android tablets — CloudOn is working on an Android edition). OnLive has both a free version and one that costs $4.99 a month, with additional tiers of service on their way.

Unlike OnLive Desktop, CloudOn gives you Office, not Windows: you don’t see the Start button or the desktop, and don’t get Internet Explorer, which is included in OnLive Desktop Plus. (According to the CloudOn folks, the fact that they’re not providing access to Windows itself eliminates the software licensing issues which are causing trouble for OnLive Desktop.)

CloudOn is hardwired into Dropbox and Box for moving files back and forth between Office, your iPad and other devices, and provides a file manager for getting at your stuff; OnLive has its own cloud drive and provides access to Dropbox and other services, but they’re not neatly integrated. CloudOn also now lets you directly open file attachments from the iPad’s Mail app, edit them, and auto-save them back to Dropbox or Box — a very, very handy feature.

OnLive’s Office apps seem to be presented exactly as you’d see them if you installed a fresh copy of the suite. CloudOn, however, has done some tweaking of the Ribbon interface, rearranging and eliminating certain items. It looks like it’s done this both because some standard features are irrelevant (CloudOn auto-saves everything back to Dropbox or Box, so Office’s File menu goes unused) and to give you larger, more finger-friendly versions of some icons. It took me a while to get used to these changes, but they’re not a major obstacle.

OnLive’s service is based on the company’s multimillion-dollar investment in cloud-based gaming, and on a fast Wi-Fi connection, it feels snappier and more, well, real to me than CloudOn: it even lets you stream video, something that CloudOn doesn’t try to do. CloudOn is generally fast enough to make editing documents in Word, Excel and PowerPoint easy, but it doesn’t deal as well with tasks where quick screen refreshing is essential, such as scrolling and PowerPoint transitions, and the qualify of the text rendering on my iPad 2 isn’t as good.

Then again. when you try to use OnLive Desktop on a 3G connection, it warns that it’s a bad idea, limits you to ten minutes at a time and sometimes refuses to let you into the service all. CloudOn runs reasonably well over 3G and doesn’t time out.

Another key CloudOn difference: it uses the standard iPad on-screen keyboard, which it complements with a row of additional keys including Ctrl, Alt, arrows and functions. OnLive Desktop uses Microsoft’s on-screen input system, which includes handwriting recognition but is otherwise clunkier and less familiar than the iPad keyboard.

(Both CloudOn and OnLive work best with an external keyboard such as my beloved ZaggFolio — on-screen keyboards are not only harder to type on, but hog too much display real estate. I found CloudOn slightly glitchy with Zagg’s keyboard, which it occasionally refused to recognize. Mostly, though, it worked.)

Like OnLive, CloudOn loses its connection to the remote software whenever you switch from it to another iPad application; it takes a few seconds to reconnect. That can be mildly annoying if you need to do something such as check an e-mail. This isn’t as big a nuisance in OnLive Desktop Plus, since it has its own built-in copy of Internet Explorer.

Having Office on the iPad doesn’t eliminate the need for Office-compatible iPad apps. For one thing, both CloudOn and OnLive only work when you’ve got an Internet connection. For another, there’s a limit to how usable you can make full-strength Office on an iPad: the icons, dialog boxes and other gewgaws were designed for keyboard-and-mouse use and will never be as well optimized for touch use as a real iPad program. (You’ve got to learn to point really precisely.)

Still, when Office is useful on the iPad, it can be tremendously useful. And while OnLive has ambitious plans to give OnLive Desktop new features such as the ability to install additional apps of your choice, the current version of CloudOn gives you a simpler, more 3G-capable of Microsoft’s suite. And it does it for free. F0r now, it’s the Office I’ll turn to when I need Office on my iPad.

Here’s CloudOn’s own video walkthrough of the new features:


MORE ABOUT OFFICE ON THE IPAD: it still isn’t clear whether Microsoft plans to release an official version of its suite for Apple’s tablet.