Does Office For iPad Close The Door On Third Party Alternatives?

This is the Surface Studio

At the same time as Microsoft was announcing (at long last) the availability of Office for the iPad, my email inbox was going ballistic with emails about other vendors doing interesting stuff at the convergence of office productivity and mobile. For anyone who has been living under a rock since the announcement, Office for iPad sees the company deliver highly functional (Microsoft calls them “high fidelity”) iPad applications covering the Office suite – it’s kind of bizarre that there was no official product until now – Microsoft spun that omission around the fact that for the fidelity they want for mobile applications, building out full solutions is a non trivial task. The true explanation has much more to do with politics and competitive issues. The changing of the guard, and the ascendency of new CEO Satya Nadella, marked a more mature Microsoft, one that realizes that sometimes playing with the enemy is the only way to continue to be successful.

What struck me however as I received pitch after pitch about alternative products, was my interest as to whether these announcements were rendered irrelevant by the Microsoft news – does editing Office files in anything other than a full-fidelity application make any sense now that Microsoft offers an iPad solution?

It seems to me that there are two distinct use cases around content – the first is the need for users to get a high quality view of their files no matter what tool they’re using – if I use Dropbox, Box, ShareFile, Google Drive, OneDrive or any of the other file sharing applications, I should be able to get a high-quality preview of the file content from within that application. It’s the reason Box bought Crocadoc last year, and Dropbox bought ReadMill just last week – “owning” image preview is a critical requirement for an application. There’s nothing worse for a platform provider than losing customers from within their platform every time they want to do something as simple as viewing a file.

But when it comes to document creation and editing, is there a need to perform these functions within a third party application? And what level of functional fidelity do I need? When Box introduced its Box Notes application late last year, it took a gamble that the way people work is polarized – on the one hand people need to create quick documents with limited editing functionality, but then when it comes to the creation and editing of full files, users prefer to revert to an original solution. And Google Apps has always had a presentation offering for example, but it’s an offering that falls far short of what users can do in PowerPoint or Keynote – does that cut it>

Citrix ShareFile disagrees that the editing process needs to occur in a full fidelity application- last year it acquired Byte2 to allow embedded Office editing within its file sharing solution. According to Janelle Raney, a product manager at Citrix, simple viewing isn’t enough:

It’s not enough to just access, collaborate and share content, people need the tools to create and edit content on the go

Well, yes. But the question remains if there is any need for them to do that within their file sharing solution. By extension it seems that Raney is saying that for at least a proportion of use cases, the full creation and editing applications are unnecessary. Of course, at least in the context of Office for iPad, the jury is out on just how many people want to really create and edit content on this form factor. I’ve seen a number of posts from commentators who are both heavy users of tablet devices and Microsoft Office, but it’s rare to hear of people who share those two use cases in one sitting – the general consensus is that low fidelity editing, and rich viewing of content generally suffices.

Of course the delay in Microsoft delivering Office for the iPad has also increased the number of other options people have. There are applications like Editorial and iA Writer which both deliver on the document creation use case. The there are a plethora of alternatives to PowerPoint. has the combination of native file viewing functionality within file sharing solutions, and third party file creation offerings made Office for iPad largely unneeded?

The fascinating litmus test will be to see how many people actually pay for the full Office for iPad applications. The apps can be downloaded for free and this allows users to view existing documents – it is only when edits need to be made that the $70 per annum subscription kicks in. Time will tell if Office for iPad is too late, or perfectly times to leverage Nadella declared paradigm shift of mobile plus cloud

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