Revenue explosion from Office for iPad fails to ignite

Early indications are that the apps have had much less of an impact than analysts predicted

Contrary to some experts' expectations, Microsoft hasn't been "printing money" since it launched Office for iPad in March.

Although Microsoft has touted the number of downloads of Office for iPad -- recently, CEO Satya Nadella claimed 35 million downloads -- and trumpeted the growing subscriber base for Office 365, there's no evidence that the apps' release four months ago has unlocked a treasure chest of revenue.

"The additional subscriptions [to Office 365 Home] look like, at most, two or three hundred thousand," said Jan Dawson, chief analyst at Jackdaw Research, in a Monday interview. "The exact number is not important. What is, is that it's not a million new users."

Office 365 plans data
Microsoft added 1.2 million subscribers to the consumer-grade Office 365 plans after the launch of Office for iPad late in the first quarter of 2014. (Data: Microsoft.)

Dawson had looked at the increase in subscriptions to the consumer-grade Office 365 plans -- dubbed "Home," for $100 annually, and "Personal," for $80 a year -- and concluded that there were no signs of a massive surge in the quarter following the March debut of Office for iPad.

Microsoft uses a "freemium" business model to distribute and sell Office for iPad. The Office apps -- Excel, OneNote, PowerPoint and Word -- can be used by anyone free of charge to view documents, take notes and present slideshows. But to create new content or documents, or edit existing ones on Excel, PowerPoint and Word, customers must have an active subscription to Office 365.

So while the number of downloads was impressive, that figure wasn't indicative of how many had been enticed to subscribe to Office 365 Home or Personal because of the iPad apps' availability.

Dawson based his estimate of an iPad effect on the Office 365 growth rate Microsoft has disclosed. In the first quarter of 2014, before Office for iPad's release, the company added 900,000 subscribers to the Office 365 rolls; in the second quarter, after Office for iPad debuted, the subscriber count increased by 1.2 million, for a difference of 300,000.

Dawson acknowledged his estimate was rough, but stressed that the most important point was that the rolls didn't jump by a massive number.

Some industry and Wall Street analysts had expected a big boost to Microsoft's revenue from Office for iPad.

In January 2013, Bob O'Donnell, then an analyst with IDC, proclaimed, "The day they introduce Office for iOS and Android, they'll start printing money."

Others were bullish, too. In March 2013, Gerry Purdy, principal analyst at MobileTrax, said Microsoft could earn as much as $1.25 billion in the first year from sales of Office on the iPad and other tablets.

Microsoft has reaped considerably less, at least on the consumer side. Even if every one of Dawson's 300,000 subscribed to Office 365 because of Office for iPad, those new subscriptions would have added just $30 million to Microsoft's revenue for the year.

As it is, Microsoft's consumer rent-not-buy software plans are currently at an annual revenue run-rate of more than half a billion dollars.

Because Microsoft does not disclose data for Office 365 plans sold to businesses -- those plans range in cost from $5 per user per month ($60 a year) to $22 per user per month ($264) -- it's impossible to tell what impact, if any, Office for iPad may have had on the commercial side, where many figured the apps' would be most used.

And the number of downloads Microsoft has crowed over, said Dawson, doesn't translate into as many new customers as it wants people to believe. Because Microsoft counts each app download, and there are three core apps, four if OneNote is included, the number of customers who grabbed Office for iPad is probably one-fourth or one-third the 35 million, or 8.7 million to 11.7 million.

And most of them could be using the apps in free mode. "It has value as a free product," Dawson said, referring to the apps' ability to display documents for viewing and reading.

Microsoft has promised, but not yet delivered, the touch-enabled Office apps for Windows and Android. The latter is expected to appear before the end of the year, while the former may not be released until the spring of 2015, when Microsoft will likely launch the next iteration of Windows, code named "Threshold" and pegged as "Windows 9" by company watchers for now.

The Office for iPad apps can be downloaded from Apple's App Store.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at Twitter @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

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