Office on the iPhone: It’s Real and It’s Here

Microsoft's long-rumored iOS Office suite turns out to be a bonus for Office 365 subscribers.

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For eons now, the scuttlebutt about a version of Microsoft Office for Apple’s iOS devices has just kept on coming. In November 2011, Office for the iPad was reported to be in the works. In February 2012, it was allegedly going to arrive shortly. Then versions for iPhone and iPad (and Android) were supposed to arrive in early 2013. Unless they weren’t going to show up until October 2014.

Whew. If you tuned out the rumors at some point along the way, I don’t blame you. But now there’s news about Office for iOS that is, indeed, news: Microsoft is releasing an iPhone version today. Like the Windows Phone version — which it closely resembles — this one is officially known as Office Mobile and includes pocket-size editions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint. It’s live in the Apple App Store as you read this. (Microsoft provided me with the app in prerelease form.)

Office for the iPhone is a free download. But that doesn’t mean that Microsoft is giving away this new version of one of its crown jewels. To use it, you need to be a subscriber to the company’s Office 365 service, which gives you access to Office 2013 on up to five Windows PCs, among other benefits. There’s a one-month free trial, but after that, the home version of Office 365 is $9.99 a month or $99.99 a year. (Paying customers are entitled to install Office Mobile on up to five iPhones.)

So why care about Office Mobile when there are numerous well-established iPhone apps — such as Quickoffice, Documents to Go and Apple’s own iWork suite — that work with Office files and don’t require an ongoing subscription? Two main reasons: SkyDrive and native file support, which add up to the most seamless way to extend Office onto an Apple smartphone.

Both Office 2013 and Office Mobile use Microsoft’s SkyDrive cloud service for document storage, letting you shuttle files between PC and phone without giving it much thought, opening and saving files on either device as if they were both connected to the same hard disk. If someone e-mails you an Office document as a file attachment, you can open it in Office Mobile, then save it to SkyDrive; if you need to e-mail a document that’s on SkyDrive, you can do that too.

As for native file support, the fact that Office Mobile is Office means it can open, edit and save files created by full-fledged Office without need for conversion, which helps it sidestep the sort of compatibility issues that can result in glitches like wonky-looking PowerPoint slides in competitive phone suites. (Usually, at least: I encountered minor issues with some very complex files, and Word Mobile refused to let me edit one particularly elaborate Word document that was rife with fancy formatting.)

Microsoft, reasonably enough, doesn’t expect Office Mobile users to be performing heavy-duty wrangling of words, numbers and slides. Documents open up in a view-only mode; if you switch into editing mode, you get only a sparse set of tools. In some cases, rival apps do more: Apple’s Pages, unlike Word Mobile, lets you insert images, check spelling and get a word count. And you can’t add comments to Word Mobile documents, a feature that is available in the Windows Phone version.

What you can do is futz around with text and information in cells, insert simple charts into spreadsheets, shuffle around slides and perform other minor tweaks, then save everything back to SkyDrive. You can also create Word and Excel documents — but not PowerPoint presentations — from scratch. It’s not world-changing, but it’s straightforward and useful.

All of which leaves one still intriguing question: What about Office for iPad? For now, it remains a vaporous, possibly imaginary product. I asked Microsoft’s Julia White about it, and she said the company’s recommendation is that iPad owners use its browser-based Office Web Apps — which do indeed work quite well on an iPad, as long as you’re connected to the Internet. (I also inquired about the possibility of an Android version; she said the company is focused on the iPhone one for now.)

Office Mobile for the iPad, of course, could still pop up in the future. I wouldn’t count on it doing so anytime soon, though: Microsoft hasn’t released a truly tablet-centric version of Office for any platform yet, and it would be a shocker if it arrived first on Apple’s tablet rather than Windows 8 and Windows RT.

If Office for iPad does become a reality, I think we now know the answer to a question that pundits have been wondering about. It won’t be so cheap that it conditions people to think that Office shouldn’t cost any more than a garden-variety iOS app. Instead, like Office Mobile for iPhone, it’ll be a bonus for Office 365 subscribers, thereby (theoretically) buttressing Office’s profits rather than threatening them.

Hey, Microsoft may be willing to make owners of Apple devices happy, but it’s not going to cater to all of them: just the ones who love Office so much that they want to use it everywhere, and are willing to pay a monthly fee for the privilege.