Why Microsoft Office for iPad is still important: 'Almost' isn't good enough

On their surface Apple's iWork apps — now included with the purchase of new Macs or iOS devices — provide customers with Microsoft Office-like capabilities. Are they a substitute for Office? Maybe for some, but Office's absence on iPad is still a glaring void that needs to be filled. For many of Apple's customers, there's simply no adequate substitute for Microsoft's productivity software.

The gold standard

Office is, and long has been, the gold standard for compatibility and interoperability in both enterprise and academic environments. Very rarely is anyone going to be asked to resubmit a document they've sent in .doc or .docx format (or .xlsx or .pptx formats, for that matter).

While Office document formats are hardly a lingua franca, they do represent a baseline of compatibility that most users are comfortable with and that most IT departments can support. And while Apple product users can be reluctant to admit it, Microsoft remains the de facto standard just about everywhere.


Many other apps are capable of importing and exporting Microsoft Office documents. In fact, it can be argued that the kiss of death for any productivity software is not to include some sort of Office file format interoperability. All non-Office apps do so with varying degrees of success. Problems become more likely to arise as layouts and calculations get more complicated.

I'll readily admit that even between Microsoft Offices, things aren't perfect. Exchanging documents between Office for Mac and Windows can sometimes lead to problems with formatting and more. But generally Office-to-Office exchange is a less painful process than converting between different productivity suites.

What's more, it represents fewer steps, too — you don't have to export instead of just save a document. You don't have to import, either.


For many of us, Office may be the first or only productivity suite we've ever learned to use. We're accustomed to the shortcuts we've memorized, along with the placement of menus, the location of tools, palettes and other interface elements.

You can argue that iWork and other productivity software offer interface improvements, more intuitive elements and better shortcuts, but the fact is that many of us are hard-wired to remember what we first learned, and simply aren't comfortable learning a new way, even if it is better.

And to my mind, we shouldn't have to. I think most people have a very reasonable expectation to assume that software — especially software that performs a function they're accustomed to — should work the way they want it to work.

Witness the revamping of iWork apps for OS X and see what I mean. Long-time users of Pages and Numbers, especially, were really upset by the changes made to Apple's newest versions precisely because they were such a change in both interface and functionality.

Because brand matters

There certainly are substitutes for Microsoft Office available for iPad, and I'm not just talking about iWork apps. QuickOffice comes to mind, along with Documents to Go, OfficeReader and others.

But none of them are Microsoft Office. It's a brand people recognize and, as I've stated before, it's a product people are comfortable with. Giving them something like Office isn't the same as giving them Office.

Still waiting

Four years after the debut of the iPad, we're still waiting for a version of Office that runs on the iPad. And despite rumors to the contrary, I think we still might be waiting a while — Office is one of the few things that really make Surface a compelling choice for business users looking for a tablet. It seems crazy to think that Microsoft would want to kill that just for a chance to garner some revenue from iOS users.

Having said that, Office is available for iOS, at least in some way. Office Mobile has been available for download from the App Store for a while — it provides iPhone users specifically with access to cloud-connected documents. The limiting factor is that you have to have an Office 365 subscription. I have very little doubt that if and when Office connectivity comes to the iPad, we'll face the same sort of limitations.

My weekend job is to sell Macs and iPads at a local Apple retailer. The availability of Office is one of the first question out of the mouths of many of our iPad-buying customers. While we can often assuage them by letting them know they get similar functionality out of Pages, Numbers and Keynote, I have to admit that it's very hit-or-miss when I talk to them post-sale.

Many of these same people with no find Apple's iWork apps to be confusing or more trouble than they're worth to get working in their workflow specifically, and they lack the time and patience to figure out how to make it work.

For them and many other customers like them, a native Office experience on the iPad would be a good thing and would be the path of least resistance.

How about you? Do you pine for Microsoft Office on your iPad, or have you made do with alternatives? Sound off in the comments, I want to hear from you.

Peter Cohen