Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols: Office for iPad: Big deal, or big yawn?

Flop or not? Users will soon decide whether Office for the iPad is the greatest thing since Flappy Birds or the next Microsoft Kin. What's a Kin, you ask? Exactly.

It looks like Microsoft Office really is coming to the Apple iPad. Well, actually, it will most likely be a version of Office 365, but why quibble?

That's great, right? At long last, the world's most popular office suite will be available on the most popular tablet! Microsoft will get more customers, life will be grand for Microsoft stockholders, and Apple might even sell a few more iPads. But it's also possible that no will give a hoot.

No, sorry; that's not right. There are people who will give a hoot. Unfortunately for Microsoft, those people are its own most loyal customers, the folks who bought Surface phablets because they can't live without Office and knew that was the only way to get Office on a tablet.

This isn't a case of your friendly neighborhood tech columnist taking a contrarian stand. There's real disagreement among industry watchers about how Office on non-Surface tablets will be received. Some say Office for iPad is two years too late to matter. Gartner's Michael Silver thinks it's possible that "no one will care." But Bob O'Donnell, then an analyst at IDC, famously proclaimed in January 2013, "The day they introduce Office for iOS and Android, they'll start printing money."

So which is it going to be?

Well, let's think about what we know about the tablet market. For starters, iPads are everywhere in business. Even back in 2012, when people were still confusing BYOD with BYOB, IDG found that 91% of corporate users with iPads were using them for work. The top uses? 76% used them to read Web content, 73% used them to read or view news; over 54% used them for work communications, while social media, personal communication and entertainment followed with 44%, 42% and 31%, respectively.

You see what's missing, don't you? Document creation and editing, spreadsheets, presentation creators -- you know, office suite stuff. And it's not as if users couldn't do those things because of the absence of Office; there are a lot of office suites available for the iPad: iWorks, DataViz Documents to Go and QuickOffice. None of them is exactly burning up the iTunes Store sales charts.

Could it just possibly be that, while the iPad is great for simple data entry or for consuming words, it's not that great for creating them? Truth is, not many people want to type much more than an email on a touch-screen keyboard.

Sure, you can add a physical keyboard and even a mouse to your iPad to make it easier to write or enter data, but do you know what you have once you've added those? A laptop.

So here's how I see the odds for Office on the iPad. Will it be a big deal? 1 in 10. Will it just sell decently? 2 in 10, because I can foresee Microsoft-besotted IT managers buying hundreds or thousands of licenses, regardless of whether anyone will want to use them. Will it be a lemon along the lines of the mostly forgotten Kin? 7 in 10.

Sorry, Microsoft. Though some people adore tablets for document creation, I think those folks constitute a niche audience. For most of us, tablets are for document and spreadsheet consumption, not creation. Which means that for the vast majority of tablet users, Office is an expensive tool of limited utility.

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been writing about technology and the business of technology since CP/M-80 was cutting-edge and 300bit/sec. was a fast Internet connection -- and we liked it! He can be reached at

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