Microsoft inches toward Office on iPad, Android tablets

Windows-first strategy remains sacrosanct, but 'We don't have our heads in the sand,' says Ballmer

Microsoft executives last week came the closest yet to saying that the company will release Office on iPads and Android tablets, but stopped short of promising anything specific or setting a timetable.

"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 in ways that meets our customers' needs, and the customer value of those experiences, and in ways that economically make sense for Microsoft, and at a proper timetable," said Qi Lu on Thursday in a heavily-qualified answer during the company's financial analysts meeting, a half-day event where Microsoft spoke to Wall Street analysts.

Lu heads Microsoft's new Applications and Services Group, which is responsible for Office.

Others chimed in, too, including CEO Steve Ballmer, who recently announced he would retire once the company selects a new chief executive.

After a Wells Fargo analyst questioned Microsoft's current strategy -- which is to favor Windows by offering Office only on tablets running that OS -- and encouraged the company to "let your apps free and run cross-platform," Ballmer visibly bristled.

"You said something that was actually the opposite of what I said," Ballmer told the analyst. "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."

Office, though not strictly a service -- at least in the way that, say, Bing search is -- has been touted by Microsoft as just that because of its software-as-a-service (SasS) Office 365.

Later in the same answer, Ballmer seemed to get more specific about Microsoft's plans for Office. "Now, how do we get our services to be popular on non-Windows devices? With the enterprise we kind of know how to do that. You walk into the enterprise, you say sign up for Office 365, you say we're going to embrace your iPads and your iPhones, and blah-de, blah-de, blah," Ballmer said. "We know how to do that. We know how to get paid. Life feels pretty straightforward."

No one on Microsoft's executive team, however, said straight out that Office will be available on iPads and Android tablets, or when that would happen.

But some pundits interpreted the remarks as confirmation, more or less, of a long-rumored -- but not yet realized -- move by Microsoft to offer its leading money maker, Office, on rivals' hardware.

So, what exactly did Microsoft say?

One analyst said it was a trial balloon, and little more. "Microsoft likes to test ideas and messages to see what people think," said Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst with Moor Insights & Strategy. "Actually, that's pretty smart. But I do feel like that they were just testing the boundaries of what people think [about such a move]."

Moorhead interpreted the Microsoft executives' comments as less a commitment, more as a let's-see-what-the-Street-thinks moment because he believes the company has not yet made up its mind whether to offer Office on iOS and Android.

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