Microsoft has finally relented, and released its core Office applications on the iPad. Word, Excel, and PowerPoint were released yesterday as separate iOS apps, and all three of them are free to download. Even better, Office Mobile for the iPhone and Android phones is now free as well. Of course, Microsoft still wants you to buy into its Office 365 subscription service, but that's no surprise.
In a lengthy blog post, Microsoft's John Case thoroughly explains the "mobile first, cloud first approach" that Microsoft is taking with the Office product. Redmond sees the writing on the wall, and definitely knows that selling Office on PCs isn't going to sustain the company. The world is shifting away from traditional desktops, and new CEO Satya Nadella wants to portray Microsoft as a forward-looking company. Providing a top-tier Office experience for Surface tablets and Windows Phones was never enough, and so it seems that Microsoft is finally ready to trade blows with Google and Apple for productivity superiority in the mobile space.
Bear in mind that Office is a major profit centre for Microsoft. Shareholders would be livid if Redmond endangered that golden goose, so these "free" applications for the iPad aren't really free. It's true that you can view any given document at no cost, but you're going to need an Office 365 subscription if you want to create or edit documents. The £80 in-app purchase available in Word, Excel, and PowerPoint is a subscription to the "Office 365 Home" plan, but business users will need to pay for a different service plan altogether. If you end up investing heavily in the Office 365 ecosystem, it will end up costing much more as these subscription fees add up over time. These apps aren't really "free" or "£80." In reality, the long-term cost is much higher.
As I see it, this is too little, too late from Microsoft. iOS devices can view Office documents natively, and Apple already made the iWork suite available for free. Google also has its own productivity apps available on iOS at no cost, so Redmond has its work cut out for it. Sure, you can pay for more online storage from Apple and Google, but all of the core features of their apps cost nothing at all.
How can Microsoft compete with productivity apps that are actually free? Apple's Pages, Keynote, and Numbers are top-notch apps, and Google Docs already has a massive user base. Regardless of quality, these huge subscription fees are a hard sell to consumers. Even with the cachet that the name "Office" brings to the table, it's getting harder and harder to justify paying Microsoft's premium, even if workers will need to be retrained and workflows retooled. Apple and Google are more than happy to take a small financial hit to eat Microsoft's lunch, and it's the users who truly benefit in the end.