Microsoft CEO Nadella to unveil Office on iPad next week

Long wait almost over, reports claim; the hard work of selling the suite to begin

Microsoft will announce Office apps for Apple's iPad on March 27, according to a pair of reports Monday.

CEO Satya Nadella will take part in his first public press conference starting at 10 a.m. Pacific time (1 p.m. Eastern time) that day, according to ZDNet and The Verge, which both reported on the event yesterday. The press conference, which is an invitation-only event, will be "focused on the intersection of cloud and mobile computing," but Microsoft has declined to say more.

The topic is no surprise: On Nadella's first day as CEO, he used the phrase "mobile-first, cloud-first" to describe his strategy for the company.

The San Francisco location and timing of the press conference are also interesting, and bolster claims that Microsoft will trot out Office on the iPad. At the same hour and in the same city, the Macworld/iWorld conference -- the country's largest Apple-focused show that's open to the public -- will kick off at the Moscone Center.

Macworld/iWorld will run March 27-29. Neither Microsoft nor Apple is scheduled to be an exhibitor at the show, which is hosted by IDG World Expo, an arm of IDG, the parent company of both Computerworld and Macworld, and

If Microsoft does introduce Office on the iPad, it will put an end to years of speculation about whether, and if so when, the company dumps its strategy of linking the suite with Windows in an effort to bolster the latter's chances on tablets.

Under that strategy, Microsoft kept Office for its own Windows tablets, including the struggling Surface and Surface Pro, and those of its OEM partners. Many outside observers have painted the strategy as a flop, and have pointed to slow sales of Windows tablets of all types as proof.

"I never believed that having Office on a Windows tablet was the key differentiator that Microsoft believed it to be," said Carolina Milanesi, strategic insight director of Kantar Worldpanel ComTech, in an email early Tuesday. People did want Office on the iPad, she said, but user interest in having the suite on tablets in general was not strong enough to spur many people to buy Windows tablets.

Talk of Office on the iPad first heated up in December 2011, when the now-defunct The Daily reported Microsoft was working on the suite, and added that the software would be priced at $10 per app. Two months later, the same publication claimed it had seen a prototype and that Office was only weeks from release.

That talk continued, on and off, for the next two years, with Microsoft occasionally dropping hints, such as last October, when then-CEO Steve Ballmer said a version of Office for the iPad would become available, but only after a touch-enabled edition for Windows had been added to Microsoft's lineup. More often, company officials asserted that Office was on the iPad in the form of Office Web Apps, the collection browser-based versions since renamed Office Online.

Apparently, those online apps were good enough -- until they weren't.

Analysts, both those from the technology industry and Wall Street, have long urged Microsoft to free Office from its Windows chains and make the suite available on other platforms, particularly the iPad. Some predicted that such a move would bring Microsoft billions of dollars in sales. After Ballmer announced his retirement, and after Nadella took his place six weeks ago, analysts renewed those appeals.

However, Tami Reller, Microsoft's then-marketing manager, seemed to hedge last month when asked about Office on the iPad, repeatedly using the word "thoughtful" to describe the release planning and timing. That caused ZDNet's Mary Jo Foley -- who yesterday cited anonymous sources when she said that Nadella was probably going to announce the suite next week -- to counter that Office on iPad was closer to release than most thought, and that an announcement would be made before midyear -- before Ballmer's promised touch-first version of Windows.

If Nadella does lead an announcement next week, it will show that Foley was right and that Reller, now heading for the door in Redmond, was simply dissembling.

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