Office on iPad a 'tough decision' for Microsoft, says analyst

Better chance if Windows honcho Steven Sinofsky gave blessing

Renewed rumors that Microsoft will publish iPad editions of some of its Office applications surfaced today.

One analyst said Microsoft's call on porting Office to rival Apple's tablet would be "a tough decision," what with its recent Windows on ARM pitch.

The Daily, which late last year cited unnamed sources to say that Microsoft was developing a version of its money-making Office suite for the iPad, today bolstered that claim with a purported screenshot of an iOS Office.

The publication also claimed it had had hands-on time with the apps -- Word, Excel and PowerPoint, which would join the already-available OneNote version for the iPad -- and noted that the new programs' "interface is similar to the current OneNote app, but it has hints of Metro."

Metro is the label Microsoft uses for the touch-first applications that will run on the desktop and ARM processor-powered editions of the next Windows.

Microsoft released OneNote for the iPad last December and an iPhone version in January 2011, but has kept mum on plans to port other applications in the Office suite to Apple's mobile operating system.

The apps The Daily mentioned as destined for the iPad are the same four that Microsoft has said it will include with Windows on ARM (WOA), the edition the company is pitching to tablet makers.

One analyst counted Office on iPad a done deal. "They should do [Office for the iPad], but more importantly, I think they eventually will," Al Hilwa, of IDC, said in an interview today.

Microsoft's Business division, which generated more revenue and operating income last quarter than any other part of the company, would be responsible for Office on the iPad; the suite would presumably be built by Microsoft's Mac Business Unit, or MacBU, which was recently shifted from the Entertainment group to Business.

But the division wouldn't be able to make the call on its own. "A decision like this would have gone through [CEO Steve] Ballmer," said Hilwa.

Presumably, the Windows division would have input into any major move by Office onto the iPad because Microsoft has pitched the inclusion of touch-enabled Office apps as selling point for WOA.

"It would definitely be a cross-divisional decision," said Hilwa. "But [Steven] Sinofsky used to run the Office division, and he's very influential within Microsoft."

If Sinofsky, who now leads the Windows group and formerly headed the Office team, gave his blessing to Office on the iPad, Hilwa's thinking went, it would have a much better chance of Ballmer's approval.

The release of Office on iPad, assuming The Daily's account is accurate, could be just weeks away.

Sooner than that, however, Microsoft is scheduled to open the doors to its Windows Store, the official distribution channel for all Metro-style apps. Microsoft has said it will unveil the e-market alongside the Consumer Preview of Windows 8, which may be launched Feb. 29 in Barcelona, Spain.

It's conceivable that Microsoft will want to preempt the debut of Office on Apple's iPad with Metro-ized versions in the Windows Store, said Hilwa, although he was doubtful that would happen, pointing out that the Windows 8 preview and the Windows Store would be beta, and so would any apps it offered.

Microsoft has also pledged that all Windows Store apps will be offered free of charge during the preview.

"Unless they could monetize [Office on Metro] they'll want to get that user experience down first," said Hilwa, throwing cold water on the idea that the beta of Windows Store would feature Metro-style Office applications. "They don't want an early effort to stigmatize the product, they won't want to put out products that aren't fully baked."

Key to the timing of Office on iPad or Metro apps for Windows 8, he continued, will be the quality of the software.

"What would slow them down is getting quality bits, and then getting those bits into production," said Hilwa.

On the other hand, Microsoft would gain an edge in the iPad productivity space by releasing Office for iOS sooner than later.

"Office on iPad would be a separate decision from offering it in the Windows Store," Hilwa said. "There's an advantage to be earlier on the iPad because they could gain more market share now rather than later. And it may not make a lot of sense to hold Office on iPad back if [Metro] Office is six-to-eight months out."

No matter what, said Hilwa, "It's going to be a tough decision for Microsoft."

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.

See more by Gregg Keizer on Computerworld.com.

FREE Computerworld Insider Guide: IT Certification Study Tips
Join the discussion
Be the first to comment on this article. Our Commenting Policies