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Should you buy Microsoft Office for iPad?

Office for iPad
Office for iPad came late to the Apple tablet productivity party

The iPad is an odd concept for Microsoft. It's a PC, but a PC so totally different from all of the other PCs that have run Microsoft software in the past, the iPad breaks almost every conventional rule of being a "PC" – except for having a screen – and yet, has been a massive financial success, selling over 230 million units in its first four years on the market.

iOS is heavily restrictive when compared to Windows, or even OS X, leading to many dismissing the iPad as a "toy" and something serious work cannot be carried out on. And perhaps this is true – right now, I'm typing on my MacBook Air, with my iPad mini sitting next to me idly, devoid of any kind of work-related purpose. But for many the story is different, and Microsoft has moved to recognise this with Office for iPad.

Questionable Ballmer

Under the leadership of Steve Ballmer, Microsoft released a very, very small selection of apps for either the iPad or iPhone, but developed a lot of them internally. As a strategic move, Ballmer's decisions are questionable. Office for iPad received over 12 million downloads in its first week and has no doubt boosted the number of subscribers to Office 365, the cloud-based service needed to get any kind of useful functionality out of Word, PowerPoint or Excel.

Office 365, which costs £7.99 per month (around US$13, AU$15) for the Home edition, essentially moves Office into the cloud and enables the iPad to interact with the Windows and OS X versions of the suite, syncing documents and settings. In terms of functionality, Office 365 is £7.99 a month more expensive than iCloud, but works across multiple devices and natively supports Windows formats, which is especially important when trying to run a PowerPoint presentation which has been loaded up with animations in Keynote, Apple's answer to PowerPoint.

Solid but frustrating

On the iPad, the Office experience is frustrating but satisfactory. Due to the lack of a built-in keyboard, the iPad is never going to be the perfect device for penning 1,000-plus word missives – like the one you're reading now – but for some on-the-go editing the experience was acceptable.

When compared to Pages, from Apple's own iWork suite, Word held its own. Both are pared down for the iPad and both have similar drawbacks, including speed (although this varies from device to device) and higher-end features, such as checking versions of a document for changes. All-in-all, though, Word for iPad is solid and is definitely comparable to Pages, especially when editing more complex Word documents.

PowerPoint and Excel are slightly different stories, however, as they require far more screen space than is provided by the iPad. While this isn't Microsoft's fault, the implementation of both is sub-par and steps could have been taken to remedy this. Both suffer from over-complication, especially Excel, which leads to a pretty poor experience, especially when you consider that you are paying for it. Microsoft should've drilled down on the basic features of each and worked on putting those in the iPad app, leaving the more complex features for the desktop versions. In this case, less definitely is more.

Freebie thoughts

If Office 365 is out of your budget, PowerPoint is the only app that makes sense as a free one, without the ability to edit, since displaying a PowerPoint presentation is a much more manageable task than creating or editing on an iPad. Especially when paired with an Apple TV, PowerPoint thrives as an option for displaying presentations – effects and all – to an audience.

The iPad – especially the mini – lends itself to this function since it is easy to hold and glance at, has a long battery life and doesn't require a button press to change slides. Those who make lots of presentations – teachers, lecturers, business people, and so forth – should definitely consider PowerPoint for iPad.

The unfortunate situation for Office for iPad is that because Office 365 is required, users automatically get versions on their desktops or laptops and so the incentive to download Word or Excel on an iPad is removed.

Of course, Office 365 in and of itself has merits that extend beyond the iPad and into the desktop and laptop world – syncing across devices on storage that is secure and won't fail, for example – so there is a possibility that people who already use Office 365 will download the suite onto their iPad just for the hell of it. But is this the audience or usage Microsoft is aiming for? The answer is likely no, and Microsoft could've worked to address this.

In many ways, the failings of Office for iPad are down to Steve Ballmer's hesitation concerning rolling out the suite. Less than fifty days into his job as CEO of Microsoft, Satya Nadella pushed Office for iPad out into the world – but it was arguably still too late. In 2013, Apple announced that the iWork suite on both iOS and OS X were to be made free (down from £5.99 per app), removing the need for any other applications, especially as iCloud performed the same function as Office 365, and Pages, Keynote and Numbers could export in Word, PowerPoint and Excel-friendly formats.

Is Office for iPad worth it?

Ultimately, if you are looking curiously at Office for iPad and already have an Office 365 subscription then go ahead and download the apps – they are part of the package and it doesn't make sense not to use them, even if it is very infrequently.

However, if you are going to have to sign up for Office 365 in order to use Office for iPad then it would at least be worth trying Apple's iWork suite beforehand. If there are some Office-specific features you need missing – which may be the case with PowerPoint or Excel – then you'll know that spending £7.99 per month on Office 365 isn't wasted money, and it enables the download of clients on Mac and PC, as well as syncing between them all.