Microsoft Office has long been the productivity suite juggernaut on the desktop, and today it's trying to claim some new territory: the iPad. Launched this afternoon, Office for iPad translates Word, Excel, and PowerPoint into touch-friendly mobile apps, finally giving the many, many Office users with Apple devices an easy way to sync, edit, and present their documents across their desktops, tablets, and phones. Though Microsoft has offered a way to do this on a tablet before, it was only through a website.
At home on iPad, but still distinctly Microsoft
Microsoft does a good job of translating Office onto a touchscreen. The apps are all clean and stylish — right at home on an iPad, but still distinctly part of Microsoft's family. Microsoft accomplishes this by giving each of them almost identical interfaces, with brightly colored toolbars on top and plenty of space for a document below. The toolbar is sparse and simple, letting users tap between different tabs to find all of the different editing tools, review options, and specific features that they offer. I don't know that every single option you'll find on the desktop is here, but I was definitely able to find all of the ones that I wanted.
Critically, all of those options don't become a mess throughout Word, Excel, or PowerPoint either. Tabs and buttons are big and spaced far enough apart that you won't miss them or hit the wrong one, messing up the formatting on your document. Even if you do, there's also a nice big undo button right up top.
The other big thread between these three apps is OneDrive. By default, your documents will automatically save into Microsoft's cloud. Once you close the app, you'll be able to open the same file up on an iPhone, on the web, or anywhere else you can access Office 365. Saving a file to the cloud saves it only to the cloud though. Unless you specifically chose to keep a file right on your iPad, you'll need to have an internet connection to access it at all. That's not uncommon for productivity tools on mobile, but it's worth remembering when you're choosing which coffee shop to head to.
Document syncing worked well though, and files appear almost identical when moved between the iPhone, iPad, and the web. Occasionally, some more complicated layouts may have minor differences on different devices, but it probably won't be problematic enough to disrupt the flow of a document or presentation.
The Word, Excel, and PowerPoint you already know
The apps are otherwise exactly what you'd expect, and in a good way. Microsoft hasn't made a lot of changes here — mainly, it's just pared down the buttons and options from the desktop and put the important ones front and center. Word feels like just as powerful of a text editor, and in some cases — like when you're trying to move around and scale images — it can even be easier to use with touch. Excel comes with a custom keyboard that includes a number pad, arrow keys, and different symbols to make punching in data quicker; and it offers help and explanations for all of its formulas, letting you fill them out just by tapping on different cells. And of course, PowerPoint includes more transitions than you could possibly ask for. When running on the iPad mini with Retina display, they ran just as fast as you'd expect too — in fact, the only real hiccup was waiting to download a document from OneDrive.
That's a really big feat for Microsoft to accomplish, and not just because it's crossing platforms. Though Windows 8 is over a year old, Microsoft still doesn't have a touch-centric version of Office ready for it, and that's made using Office with a touchscreen something of a sore spot for tablet users running Windows. Now it's clear that Microsoft knows how to pare Office's robust set of features down to size in a smart way — so hopefully the wait won't be too much longer.
But there's still one potential deal breaker for Office on the iPad — and it's a big one: if you want to create and edit documents, you'll have to subscribe to Office 365. For a home edition, that's $99.99 per year (though a less expensive option is on the way). That's a particularly hard sell when Apple offers its own productivity suite for free, including syncing to free web apps too. But Microsoft may not have to worry about that: as long as Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents remain the standard, there'll be a really good reason to choose Office.