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NEW YORK — Anticlimax (noun): 1. An event or conclusion that is far less important, powerful, or striking than expected. 2. The release of Microsoft Office for the iPhone.
Office for iPhone is big news, but not because the software is earthshaking. No, it’s a big deal primarily because of the politics of the situation.
Here is Microsoft, the once-mighty software global overlord, years into its repeated failures to produce a successful smartphone, creating an app that lets you edit Word, Excel, and PowerPoint files on the gadget that defeated it, the iPhone. It’s as if somewhere along the line, Microsoft executives started wearing “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” T-shirts.
Microsoft, of course, doesn’t see it that way. The company reports tiny but measurable upticks in sales of its own Windows Phone (which actually is a terrific phone). So why did Microsoft create Office Mobile for the iPhone?
Here’s a hint: You can’t buy the Office Mobile app outright. It’s free with your paid subscription to Microsoft’s Office 365 plan, which costs $100 a year. It’s a service that lets you download Word, Excel, and PowerPoint to up to five Mac or Windows computers.
Since Office 365 arrived, Microsoft has been busily trying to sweeten the offer. Office 365 membership gets you one hour of free phone calls a month using Skype. It also gives you 20 extra gigabytes of storage on the SkyDrive, an online hard drive for backing up or transferring documents. (Nonsubscribers get 7 gigabytes free.)
And now it gets you this app for iPhone (iPhone 4 and later) and iPod Touch (5 or later). That’s why its impressively clunky full name is Office Mobile for Office 365 Subscribers. (Office Mobile is already available on Windows Phones and doesn’t require any subscription.)
You can run the app on up to five iPhones. If you ever stop paying for your Office 365 membership, the app stops working. Your documents are safe in that case, however. They’re both on your phone (until you delete the app) and on your free SkyDrive.
To use the app, you enter your Office 365 name and password. Once you’ve signed in, you see a list of all the Word, Excel, and PowerPoint files that you’ve stashed on your SkyDrive. When you select a document’s name, it rapidly downloads to your phone, and you can work on it without an Internet connection. Next time you’re online, the changes get sent back to the SkyDrive original. You can also use Office Mobile to edit documents that people sent to you as attachments in the iPhone’s Mail app.
Once you tap a document to open it, however, you quickly discover that this app isn’t anything like the full Microsoft Office, it’s more like the Microsoft Vestibule. It’s extremely stripped down. It offers only the features Microsoft thinks you’ll realistically use on a bus or in the doctor’s office with nothing but your phone in hand.
The miniature Word module, for example, offers comments, outline view, bold/italic/underline/strikethrough styles, font and background colors, and highlighting. You type, cut, copy, and paste using variations on the iPhone’s standard finger gestures. And when you open a Word document, it jumps to the spot where you were last reading on your computer. Slick.
Notably absent: style sheets. Spelling checker. An undo command. The ability to change the font or insert a graphic. You can make the type bigger or smaller, but you can’t specify a size by number. Layout-intensive documents — lots of boxes, embedded graphics, and so on — sometimes don’t come through to the phone fully intact.
The Excel module is by far the most fully featured app. It displays most elements of a spreadsheet. You can scroll around with your finger, zoom in or out with two fingers, lock a row or a column so it doesn’t scroll, rotate the phone for a wider view, edit comments, flip into outline view, edit formulas, create graphs, change numbers, sort, find, filter, and format text and numbers. If the sheet has multiple pages, you can switch among using bottom edge tabs, exactly as on a computer. There’s an undo command. (Why here, and not in Word?)
Notably absent: You can’t rearrange rows or columns (although you can adjust row heights and column widths), and you can’t insert new ones.
Then there’s the PowerPoint module, which is only a shadow of an echo of a memory of the real thing. You can’t create PowerPoint documents in Office Mobile; you can only open existing ones. Even then, you can’t add new slides or duplicate any.
You can move slides, hide them, edit the text on them, edit your speaker notes, or run the slideshow for practice. (Your notes are visible when you hold the phone upright. When you turn it sideways, the notes disappear and the slide fills the screen.)
Notably absent: everything else. Microsoft seems to believe that nobody will do much creative work on a slideshow on the tiny phone screen and that the only work that’s practical there is fine-tuning and rehearsing your talk.
Here’s something notably absent from all three modules: the ability to edit .doc, .xls and .ppt files, the kind everybody on Earth used until Microsoft introduced newer file formats a few years ago. Office Mobile works only with the new formats, whose file names end with the suffixes .docx, .xlsx, and .pptx. If someone sends you files of the more common older type, you can open them, but you can’t make changes.
Also missing from all of the app modules: change tracking. Macros. An Android version. An iPad version. (You can run Office Mobile for iPhone on an iPad but without the benefit of the bigger screen area.)
Office Mobile is a nice perk for Office 365 subscribers. It’s simply and fluidly designed. And it’s a cinch to learn. You’d never guess that it’s the distant relative of a software suite that’s about as svelte and lovely as Jabba the Hutt. As an iPhone version of Microsoft Office, though, it’s almost ridiculously limited.
Surprisingly enough, the Internet is teeming with Office apps for the iPhone — made by non-Microsoft companies. Better ones, more complete ones, no-subscription-required ones.
For example, Apple’s own Pages, Numbers, and Keynote apps ($10 each) can edit Office documents, as can the free Google Drive app (text and spreadsheet documents only).
More serious apps, like Documents to Go Premium ($16), Polaris Office ($13), and QuickOffice Pro ($15), can create and edit all kinds of Office documents, including PowerPoint files and the older file formats.
Finally, you can always use the online versions of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint — no charge — courtesy of the Office Web Apps. They’re a little awkward to use on a tiny phone screen, but at least they’re free.
In the end, then, Office Mobile for iPhone is very little, very late. Its non-Microsoft competitors are already far more useful. Unless you want to sign up for Office 365 anyway, the other apps are a much better value, too.
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