CloudOn: Microsoft Office on the iPhone, Right Now

An iPad app which provides access to genuine Office programs comes to the iPhone.

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The scuttlebutt about an upcoming version of Office for Apple’s iOS devices seems solid. But you don’t need to wait for Microsoft to get around to releasing something. A startup called CloudOn already has an iPad app which lets you run the real Windows editions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint, hosted on one of its remote servers, for free. It competes with OnLive’s OnLive Desktop, and also runs on Android tablets. It works quite well.

And today, CloudOn is releasing a new version for the iPhone. It joins numerous other iPhone apps which can edit Office documents, including Apple’s own iWork programs and Google’s Quickoffice. But unlike everything else, CloudOn isn’t Office-compatible: It is Office — a copy running on a distant server which you can use on your phone as long as you’ve got an Internet conection.

Given that Office has lots and lots of elaborate features and was never designed to run on a pint-sized touchscreen, how is that even possible? As with its tablet variants, CloudOn has customized the Office ribbon, focusing on the most useful features and making sure that icons are big enough to be reasonably touch-friendly. It’s also integrated the suite with Dropbox, Google Drive, Box and — new in this version — Microsoft’s Skydrive, letting you access documents stored in the cloud.

CloudOn assumes, reasonably enough, that the iPhone version will be used for viewing as much as for editing, so files open up in a viewer mode; you tap to edit them. Once you do edit, though, you have access to some surprisingly powerful features: Word, for instance, has revision marking and the ability to insert tables. No file importing or exporting is involved, so there’s no chance of documents losing their formatting or getting otherwise munged along the way.

The experience isn’t without its quirks: In some cases, Office features appear but are greyed out, such as the File menu (which is superfluous, since CloudOn uses its own cloud-service integration for storage). PowerPoint is pretty cumbersome — the app only works in portrait mode, which means that you don’t see your entire slide. (CloudOn says it’s working on a version with landscape support.) There’s also a fairly lengthy wait as an app launches and loads a document, although performance is snappy enough once you’re in.

For basic viewing and editing, CloudOn is overkill. But if you want true Microsoft Office on your phone, this is the iPhone offfice suite you want. And it’s an obvious complement to the iPad edition, since it lets you get at the same documents stored on the same online storage services.

CloudOn is also releasing two other new versions today: Ones optimized for the iPad Mini and Nexus 7. The company says that it will probably reserve some features for paying customers eventually; for now, however, all the editions are free — something which isn’t true of most of its competitors…and sure isn’t true of Office itself.