Microsoft today released a stripped-down version of Office for Android smartphones, continuing its strategy of tying its mobile suite to the Office 365 rent-not-buy subscription plans.
Wednesday's launch of Office Mobile for Android followed by six weeks the debut of the same-named app for Apple's iPhone. The iOS version was also linked to Office 365.
The Android app lets customers run scaled-down versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint on a smartphone powered by Android 4.0 or later. The app is primarily intended for document viewing, but users can also create new documents and, with the app's basic tools, edit and add comments to existing ones.
Office Mobile can be downloaded free of charge from the Google Play Store, but like its iOS sibling, it only works when linked to an Office 365 account. Subscriptions range from the $100 per year Office 365 Home Premium to a blizzard of business plans that start at $150 per user per year and climb to $264 per user per year.
Office 365 lets users install Office Mobile on up to five mobile devices -- those running Windows Phone don't count,because the app is pre-installed -- so a household with an Office 365 Home Premium subscription could run the app on, say, three iPhones and two Samsung Galaxies.
For all intents and purposes, the Android app is identical to the one for the iPhone. Among the few differences, said Microsoft, was that potential customers could not sign up for Office 365 Home Premium within the app.
One disparity Microsoft didn't mention was an anti-tablet blockade even more draconian than the iOS app imposed: Office Mobile on Android won't even install on a tablet. On the iPad, users could run Office Mobile if they could stomach a chunky expanded view.
"We built Office Mobile for Android phones to ensure a great Office experience when using a small screen device," said Guy Gilbert, a senior product manager on the Office Mobile apps team, on a company blog Wednesday. "Therefore, you will not be able to download and install Office Mobile for Android phones on an Android tablet from the Google Play store. If you have an Android tablet, we recommend using the Office Web Apps which provide the best Office experience on a tablet."
That was a business decision, not one driven by technology or design, countered Frank Gillett, an analyst with Forrester Research who has been critical of Microsoft's decision to bar Office from tablets powered by iOS or Android.
"This is more of the same," said Gillett, referring to the strategy that gives Windows-based tablets a crack at Office, not those running competitors' operating systems. "Android tablets are not well established, so not supporting them is not as big of a deal. But strategically I think they should be putting Office everywhere to preserve and extend Microsoft's presence. They clearly don't see it that way."
Wes Miller, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft, viewed the appearance of Office Mobile on Android as additional confirmation, if any was needed, that Microsoft is serious about pushing Office as a service monetized through subscriptions.
"Microsoft has talked about regular updates to Office 365," said Miller today. "This could be thought of that way."
Microsoft has claimed substantial uptake for Office 365, but it has not released any clear-cut sales figures, often choosing instead to mix Office 365 with other revenue streams, like its enterprise-oriented Software Assurance, an annuity-like program that gives businesses upgrade rights for a set length of time.
"But I can tell you that we've been inundated with questions about Office 365," said Miller, talking about Directions' clients. "They are kicking the tires of Office 365, and there's momentum building [for Microsoft] but most of those calling want help navigating the cumbersome licensing."
Miller said it was impossible to evaluate Office 365's revenue impact without hard data from Microsoft. "We haven't seen any numbers about what the uptake and retention is like," Miller said. "But in the enterprise, it's safe to say that retention rates will be much higher: It's very hard to leave a hosting service [like Office 365]."
The Android app landed on the U.S. Google Play Store earlier today, and is to roll out to more than 100 other markets and in over 30 other languages during the next several weeks.
Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His email address is email@example.com.