Six years after the iPhone debuted – six long years during which time Microsoft Office users were stuck without their primary office suite on one of the most popular mobile devices ever sold – the company from Redmond has finally birthed the inelegantly named Office Mobile for Office 365 Subscribers app onto iTunes over in the US (it’s promised for other markets and the UK before too long).
At any rate, for me, the app came too little too late. In that lengthy period when there was no Microsoft Office app, I had already considered all my other options, from Apple's own iWork mobile apps to Polaris Office. I dabbled in Quickoffice Pro HD, too, and have mostly come to rely on a little collection of free alternatives, including Evernote's iPhone app for writing and Google Drive (via the browser) for spreadsheets and presentations, which I don't touch all that often on mobile devices anyway.
Microsoft's app rolls Word, Excel, and PowerPoint into one, creating a pretty tight experience. The app is fast. Documents load from SkyDrive with notable speed. And Microsoft does well making use of the tiny screen space. You'll find essential features you want, such as basic text formatting tools and commonly used Excel functions, but only a tiny fraction of the buttons, menus, and icons that smother – er, I mean grace – the desktop apps.
The iPhone app is free – but the catch is it’s only free to Office 365 subscribers, so it’s not really free as such. The cheapest Office 365 subscription runs to £80 per year, although that includes installation on up to five devices. However, the iPhone app doesn't count as one of your five, and that's a huge bonus.
The app performs well, although it only really works if you save all your important flies to SkyDrive. Microsoft will need to integrate with other big name file-syncing programs, such as Dropbox, if it wants customers to stick around. Office users who already sync all their documents through another service might not be willing to switch to SkyDrive just to use Office on iPhone, especially when so many of the alternative mobile office suites do connect to Dropbox, Box, SugarSync, and the like.
Office on iPhone: The Basics
As I’ve already mentioned, The Office Mobile for Office 365 Subscribers app gives you three programs: Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. The design is such that you don't need to think about which program you're using, though. Rather, you open an existing document from SkyDrive or an email attachment, and let the app choose the program needed to run it. If you start a new document, you're faced with a couple of choices: You can start a new Word or Excel document, or pick from popular templates, such as an agenda or report in Word or a budget or event schedule in Excel. You can't create PowerPoint presentations in the app, although you can open and edit existing ones.
The bottom of the screen offers a simple menu, with Recent, Open, New, and Settings options. Settings is a disappointing affair because there are no settings, just a "reset" button and links to information such as help, terms of service, and a privacy statement.
Microsoft has done an exceptional job with the design in the sense that the app gives you enough of the tools you need without bombarding you with ones that aren’t necessary. For example, you can add comments to a document – which is crucial, especially when you're on the go – but you don't have access to the full range of track changes features. Similarly, Excel provides some commonly used functions via a quick access menu, but nowhere near all those that you'll find in the desktop app.
Opening files from SkyDrive is a noticeably quick process. You can also open files from email attachments by choosing Office Mobile when prompted. The app doesn't require a constant connection to the Internet to work, too, which helps keeps it running quickly and smoothly as you edit or create documents. Recently opened files save locally so that you can continue working if the signal drops or you need to be offline for a bit. And all your work is saved to SkyDrive the next time you connect to the Internet.
What doesn't work
I'm not crazy about the fact that the app requires a Microsoft Office 365 subscription to work primarily because the apps in SkyDrive are free. Why are they free to use in a browser, but they effectively cost £80 a year on a mobile device?
I'm also anxious to see Office Mobile work with more apps. For example, there's no way to open an email attachment that arrives from any mail app other than Apple's own bundled Mail, such as Gmail for example. I want to be able to open documents from my Dropbox and SugarSync accounts, too. Hopefully, integration on that level will arrive soon.
Minor annoyances crop up here and there, such as the inability to move the location of an image on a Word document. In trying to edit some text, I put my finger where I wanted the cursor and waited for the two selection markers to appear, as they always do in every Apple app that includes text editing. They never appeared. In Office, you have to double tap to select a whole word before the selection markers show up.
Viewing options are good, though minimal. It would make sense to me to add to the Settings (which, as I already pointed out, don't contain any actual settings) the ability to select, say, up to three views that you would like for your particular app. Likewise, I'd like a setting that allows me to change my default save location to a syncing service other than SkyDrive.
Office Mobile is a good starting point for an iPhone version of Microsoft Office, even if it is years later coming to market than it should have been. In a marketplace where free alternatives are now very good, Office Mobile for iPhone seems like it will appeal more to the business community who already use and pay for Office anyway, more than any other group of users – and even then, only if they use SkyDrive.
The app is fast and works well, but it's not as good as other options. Cheaper alternatives that integrate with other apps and services, such as Polaris Office, or a combination of free tools that also play nice with others, are just more appealing. That said, perhaps by the time the UK version springs forth, some of these early bugbears will have been addressed…