What if Microsoft threw an iPad Office party, and no one came?

Even if customers don't pour billions into Microsoft's coffers, supporting rival mobile platforms is crucial to the company's future, analysts say

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Because Microsoft recognizes this -- even if it won't say so as publicly and plainly as Bajarin did -- it will launch Office, and then support it, even if an influx of dollars doesn't follow.

The worst scenario for Microsoft, Bajarin envisioned, would be that when large volume licensing contracts come due for renewal, companies begin to wonder why they're handing the Redmond, Wash. firm so much money when they can't get the software their workers want. "They can't be in that position when a general reevaluation of contracts comes up," Bajarin said.

Time to evolve

But while Office on the iPad may not significantly boost Microsoft's revenue, both Silver and Bajarin saw opportunity down the road.

"Microsoft has a real opportunity to come out with something that's innovative," Silver said of Office on touch devices like the iPad.

Bajarin agreed. "They clearly have an opportunity to make their Office better on touch," he said. "What's important is how this evolves. If they do it right, it could become part of a new-customer acquisition strategy, not one of maintenance of existing customers."

According to the analysts, timing is important, so the sooner Microsoft ships something for the iPad the better. But Microsoft has been close-mouthed about its roadmap -- Bajarin called the company "coy" -- only pledging last fall to do Office for Apple's tablet but not talking at all about a timetable.

Last week, Tami Reller sidestepped questions about Office on other platforms, stressing the word "thoughtful" to describe Microsoft's planning. When Computerworld dissected Reller's comments and concluded that Microsoft was hedging, others quickly countered. ZDNet's Mary Jo Foley, for example, a long-time Microsoft observer, cited anonymous sources who said that Microsoft might release Office on iPad in the first half of 2014, perhaps even before the touch-enabled version was available for Windows 8.1.

If that comes true, so much the better for Microsoft. But it shouldn't expect a windfall.

"Microsoft needs to decide what they want to do when they grow up," Silver said, sounding like he had lost patience. "It's more and more likely that people won't care about Office [on the iPad] with every day that they don't do it."

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.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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