Ballmer promises Office on iPad after touch-first apps hit Windows

First time Microsoft's publicly said it will bring the lucrative franchise to Apple's tablet

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer today said that a touch-specific version of Office will, at some point, reach the iPad.

It was the first time that a top-level Microsoft executive publicly promised that the lucrative Office franchise would run as a native app on Apple's iPad.

Ballmer's remarks were made during his time on stage Tuesday at the Gartner Symposium, the research firm's annual IT conference when he was questioned by Gartner analyst David Cearley about Office plans.

"Word, PowerPoint and Excel are all authoring tools," said Ballmer. "They are optimized for use with keyboards and mice. The last time I checked, the iPad didn't have a paradigm for keyboard or mice. iPad will be picked up when we do what I would call not just a touch-enabled, but a touch-first user interface [for Office]. That is in progress...for both Windows 8 and other platforms."

When Cearley lightly pressed Ballmer for a timetable, the CEO laughed and ultimately agreed that it would happen during Cearley's lifetime.

Although Ballmer could not be prodded into revealing a release schedule or price -- or whether it would be, like the bare bones apps for Android smartphones and the iPhone, linked to Office 365 -- his use of the word "iPad" was a first.

Previously, the closest Microsoft crept to a confirmation was last month, when Qi Lu, who leads the new Applications and Services Group, said: "We are working on touch-first versions for our core apps in the Office suite, Outlook, Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and we will bring these apps to Windows devices, and also to other devices ... at a proper timetable." Lu was speaking at the company's Sept. 19 meeting with Wall Street analysts.

Later that same day, Ballmer danced around the issue as he berated a Wells Fargo analyst, saying only, "What I'm telling you is we're going to integrate our services with our devices, [but] we'll also make our services available on other people's devices, both to the consumer and to the enterprise."

Earlier this year, long-time Microsoft watcher and ZDNet blogger Mary Jo Foley, citing an unnamed source, pegged the long-rumored, long-expected Office for the iPad as appearing in October 2014.

Microsoft has said nothing to confirm or deny that timeline, but Ballmer's comment today -- as well as previous remarks by other company executives -- put Office on iPad's launch after that of the touch-first version's availability on Windows 8.1.

So far, Microsoft has tied its native mobile Office apps -- the ones released for the iPhone in June and Android smartphones in July -- to its software-by-subscription Office 365. While the smartphone apps are free to download, they only work if the user has an active Office 365 subscription. Those subscriptions range from the $100-per-year Office 365 Home Premium aimed at consumers to a blizzard of business plans starting at $150 per user per year and climbing to $264 per user per year.

However, experts have pointed out that there's a big difference between availability on a smartphone, where document editing is nigh impossible, and on tablets, which are much more conducive to content creation. Office on the iPad would be a milestone for Microsoft.

J.P. Gownder of Forrester has estimated that Microsoft could generate $1.5 billion annually from Office on the iPad, assuming just 10% of all iPads were equipped with a $100 Office 365 subscription.

Patrick Thibodeau contributed to this report

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 gkeizer@computerworld.com.

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