The unlikely company behind Android's most improved app

Well, tickle my tootsies and call me Mildred. Could this be for real?

Android App Design

When you think about commendable app experiences on Android, Microsoft probably isn't the first name that comes to mind.

It's easy to understand why: For years, Microsoft's presence on Android was laughable at best. Despite the platform's booming popularity, the Redmond rangers took a ridiculously long time to act like they cared even the teensiest bit about serving owners of Android devices.

To wit: Up until early 2015, the company known for its dominant Office productivity apps had just one Office-related offering on Android -- a pitifully bad all-in-one version of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint that was almost unusable. It was also weirdly crippled to keep anyone from installing it on a tablet.

Then in early 2015, Microsoft put out "preview" versions of its actual full-fledged Word, Excel, and PowerPoint apps for Android. Hallelujah! But even then, as I wrote in a column at the time, the apps illustrated "a complete and foundational misunderstanding of how Android as a platform works" -- resulting in "a confusingly inconsistent and shamefully poor user experience."


So you can imagine my surprise, then, when I cracked my knuckles and got ready to dive into my sixth annual in-depth comparison of office suites on Android. In the short time since my last analysis, Microsoft took those three apps and little by little chipped away at their weaknesses. It made them good -- like, really good. So good, in fact, that they surpassed the typically-superior competition not only in functionality but also in design.

Now, hang on a second: Before you call in the nearest nuthouse to have me committed, let me explain -- especially on that latter part. Intelligent design these days is all about being adaptive. It's an overly used buzzword of the moment, I realize, but it's true: Now more than ever, an app has to provide an equally compelling experience on every device size in the spectrum -- a 4-in. phone, a monstrous slate, or anything in between.

If an app is designed well, it'll intelligently adapt its interface to create an effective user experience that's fully optimized for every single one of those possibilities. And in looking at the leading office apps on Android, Microsoft -- the mock-worthy dunce of the scene for so long -- is actually now leading the way.

Look at the interface of Word on an Android phone, for example. This is how the app's document editing screen looks on a Nexus 6P:

Microsoft Word - Android Phone jr

Open that same document on a tablet -- a Nexus 9, specifically here -- and watch how the interface adapts itself:

Microsoft Word - Android Tablet jr

See what happened there? On the smaller phone display, the app put a basic toolbar at the bottom of the screen so the most commonly used functions would always be accessible (and easy to reach, based on the way most people hold mobile devices of that size). If you want the full menu of options, you can tap the arrow at the toolbar's edge to expand it. On a phone, after all, keeping everything visible all the time would make the active editing space too small to be practical. For that form, this setup makes sense.

On the larger-sized tablet, though, Microsoft moves the toolbar to the top and gives you a more traditional desktop-like experience, with permanent tab-based sections for all of the app's functions and features. There's no need to collapse and hide elements away, because the screen is big enough to make everything easily accessible. The app takes advantage of that extra real estate, in other words, and becomes easier to use in that context as a result. That's adaptive -- and that's intelligent.

Compare that now to how Google Docs looks on a phone...

Google Docs - Android Phone jr
...and how Google Docs looks on a tablet:
Google Docs - Android Tablet jr

With Docs, there's essentially no difference between the small and large device interface -- no adaptive behavior whatsoever, other than the bottom toolbar gaining a few insignificant options. Even with the tablet's extra space, a whole list of pertinent options still sits inside an awkward overflow menu. The app just isn't taking advantage of the larger form in any effective way.

The third-party OfficeSuite app, meanwhile -- which had earned top marks in my previous comparisons -- basically now maintains the same interface regardless of screen size, too. It uses a static top-of-screen toolbar that requires scrolling to view on a phone and is displayed in its entirety on a tablet, but that's nowhere near the level of thoughtful adaptation Office provides.

There's more to an app than just its interface, of course -- and I get into the fully nitty-gritty of the comparison in my in-depth analysis -- but Microsoft moving from a position of pure weakness to outperforming even Google at intelligent design (on Google's own platform, at that) is pretty darn noteworthy.

I won't lie: If you had told me a couple years ago that Microsoft would one day have the most fully featured and thoughtfully constructed office app on Android, I would have laughed and then spat out the Tab soda I was conveniently sipping (you know, as one does when waiting for a spit-take opportunity). Hell, you don't have to take my word for it now -- just look at what I wrote upon first impression of the then-new Office "preview" apps in 2015:

If Microsoft's Android Office apps had come along four years ago, they would have seemed pretty impressive. The problem is that while Microsoft waited, other companies jumped in -- and some of those companies have done an admirable job at filling the void.

For Microsoft's apps to matter to anyone other than hardcore or myopic Office devotees, they need to offer something meaningfully better than -- or at the very least on par with -- what's already out there. Unless we see significant changes from these preview versions to the final consumer builds, I'm not sure they'll be up to the task.

And here we are two years later, with that same conclusion essentially reversed. Now, don't get me wrong: Microsoft's Android Office apps certainly aren't perfect, and they aren't going to be the right choice for everyone. Google's apps still rule the roost at collaboration and are really quite viable -- arguably even preferable -- for folks with relatively basic productivity needs and those for whom cloud-centric simplicity outweighs robust functionality (a group in which I'd include myself).

When it comes to design and overall experience, though, there's no denying that Microsoft has grown by leaps and bounds -- doing precisely what I said it had to do in order to match and surpass the competition. Over the span of a couple years, the company has taken its app from being practically useless to being a pleasure to use -- from being a punchline-worthy afterthought in the Android ecosystem to being the clear frontrunner in the realm of fully-featured office suites.

And that, my friends, is one impressive transformation.

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