Microsoft CEO Nadella to unveil Office on iPad next week

Long wait almost over, reports claim; the hard work of selling the suite to begin

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Microsoft might announce Office on the iPad March 27, but there's no guarantee that the software would go on sale or be made available for download then: Microsoft has a habit, more than many of its rivals, of pre-announcing software before it's publicly available.

When Office on the iPad does hit the market, virtually every analyst believes that Microsoft will tie it to Office 365, just as it did the iPhone and Android versions of Office Mobile last summer.

In an interview last week about Microsoft's overall Office strategy, Wes Miller of Directions on Microsoft, a Kirkland, Wash.-based research firm that covers only Microsoft, reaffirmed his belief that Office on the iPad would require an Office 365 subscription.

Office 365 is a software-as-a-service offering. Consumers pay $70 to $100 annually and businesses pay $150 to $364 per user per year to run the suite on one or more devices. The sudden unveiling last week of Office 365 Personal, a new $70-per-year offering for home users, was seen as a harbinger of Office on iPad, because it allowed customers to install applications on one PC or one Mac, and one tablet.

"I would expect Microsoft to link Office [on the iPad] to [Office] 365, as it would have a wider impact on the ecosystem, and also as it would better fit in the 'cloud picture' Nadella has painted already," said Milanesi. "I would say [that's] a necessary move to make sure their ownership of the enterprise business does not weaken."

"Ecosystem" has been a popular buzzword among analysts lately. When Microsoft shipped a new free version of OneNote for the Mac yesterday, and simultaneously ripped the price tag from the note-taking application for Windows, experts pegged it as an "ecosystem play," a move to make Microsoft's entire spectrum of devices, software and services more attractive to customers.

But is Microsoft coming to the party too late, long after the guests have paired off and gone home? Last year, some thought it would be a mistake to wait until 2014. More recently, other analysts said Office on the iPad might get a lukewarm reception because in the intervening years users have found other office productivity options for the iPad in the absence of an official Office from Microsoft.

In other words, Microsoft missed the boat.

Milanesi didn't agree. "[By at] least opening up Office to iPad, they might still get users to Office and to the wider Microsoft ecosystem versus opening up opportunities for Apple or other productivity apps to capture users," she said today. "Although users have found alternatives, [those] experiences are not perfect when it comes to editing and formatting. Of course price will be critical, as Microsoft cannot go into this thinking that they can price it as high as they could have, say, two years ago, as alternatives are available and over time they got better."

Nor did she think that ditching Windows' exclusive hold on Office for tablets would hurt sales of those devices, or give much of a boost to iPad sales -- the combination of possible developments that presumably formed a two-headed monster that Microsoft feared enough to withhold Office from non-Windows tablets.

"The fact that Office will now be on iPad does not impact sales of Windows tablet in any considerable manner, in my view," Milanesi said, pointing out that there are hundreds of other programs, including some custom-built by businesses, that run only on Windows. While acknowledging that Office on the iPad would make it easier for people to use Apple's tablet as part of their employers' bring-your-own-device programs, she said "there are still limitations as to what you can do if enterprises are not delivering iOS enterprise-class apps that used to run on Windows. In other words if all I can do at work is email, Word and Excel, I am limited as to how productive I can be."

According to Foley, Microsoft will webcast its March 27 press conference, another strong signal that while the theme may be cloud and mobile, the real focus, and the reason to tune in, will be Office on the iPad. Microsoft has yet to name a URL where that webcast will be broadcast.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter, at @gkeizer, and 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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