Office Mobile for iPhone: Why?

As soon as the iPad came out, people were asking when they could get Microsoft Office on their device. “It would be the best thing ever!” they all said, and then they waited. And waited. And waited.

Today, Microsoft Office is still not available on the iPad, but now it is on the iPhone — at least if you’re an Office 365 subscriber. Does the Office Mobile experience hold up on the smaller device or is it just a failed attempt? Let’s talk it out over break.

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A Little Background

Before we delve into all the stuff inside of Office Mobile, it’s important to note that the official name of the product is Office Mobile for Office 365 Subscribers. That means that if you want to use this app at all, you have to sign up for an Office 365 subscription. Now I don’t have that, so I contacted Microsoft’s PR company and they sent me a trial version that I could use for the review. Assuming you don’t have a subscription, you’ll have to get one yourself, and how you feel about the price depends on your perspective.

It's weird how they know exactly what I'm wearing.

It’s weird how they know exactly what I’m wearing.

Office 365 is $99.99 a year for the Home Premium plan, which includes software for both Windows and OS X installs. How you use the subscription is up to you, but I can see why some would opt for this rather than by the applications themselves. If you’re a heavy Office user and have multiple computers, this could be quite the cost savings.

Moving Files Around

With the subscription sorted out, the next issue is how to get documents from your PC or Mac onto your iPhone. To do that, I used Microsoft’s SkyDrive, which also required me to sign up. This is Microsoft’s answer to Dropbox, and my father (a Microsoft certified developer) speaks glowingly about the product. My experience wasn’t so positive.

An Office 365 subscription is required.

An Office 365 subscription is required.

I ended up installing SkyDrive on my Mac, and after dropping a few files of various types in there, I waited for them to appear on my iPhone. They didn’t. Turns out that the best way for me to get files from my Mac to the iPhone was via the web interface for SkyDrive, which made the transfer super quick. Your experience may vary, but for me, the SkyDrive deal on the Mac was a dud.

These are your only options for getting documents into Office Mobile.

These are your only options for getting documents into Office Mobile.

With your Office 365 connection enabled and once you’re logged in, you can access all of your files located at any one of three places: the aforementioned SkyDrive, an Office 365 SharePoint or a SharePoint site. I didn’t have access to any of the latter two, and frankly, it was a bit disappointing that I didn’t have other options, such as iTunes File Sharing or Dropbox. Not surprising, just disappointing.

Your only export options.

Your only export options.

There are two ways to get the files out of the app. You can save them under a new name onto your SkyDrive or other location, or email them off to your buddy (or yourself). No other sharing options are available.

The Look

If you’re a fan of the Windows Mobile/Windows 8 experience, than this should come off well. It’s a pretty app, in that the font choices are quite nice to look at and there is a general lack of textures and the like. Instead, it’s simple and easy to navigate through, with mostly text guiding the way in a file system sort of organization.

That said, there are no buttons, per se. Instead, there are small icons on the bottom of the screen for navigation, and drop-down windows when necessary. The app is very clean and very pleasant to look at overall.

File Formats — Or a Lack Thereof

Office Mobile works with any Office file, which is to say that it can view Powerpoint, Excel and Word docs right there on your device. And I suppose the key word here is “view,” because it cannot edit all of those docs. Let me explain.

Get used to seeing this.

Get used to seeing this.

In the Windows world, .docx is the preferred format for Microsoft Word docs, as .doc was set aside way back in 2007. But for Mac users, .doc is still used quite frequently, particularly when writing in something like Pages and exporting it to a Windows user. And if you don’t use the Microsoft Office Suite on your Mac, then you may not even know that .docx exists. Which brings us to our problem.

Even editable docs look weird on the iPhone's screen, and you can't do much with them.

Even editable docs look weird on the iPhone’s screen, and you can’t do much with them.

You cannot edit .doc documents, nor can you edit .xls Excel spreadsheets, because the .docx and .xlsx formats are the only options that are editable (again, I’m not sure on Powerpoint, as I don’t have any Powerpoint docs). Since most of my docs are .doc format, that means that Office Mobile doesn’t hold a whole ton of advantages for me. But you might be in a different situation, so if you do love your .xlsx and .docx files, you now have another option.

The Big Question

But all this comes down to one big question: Why?

Because you really like spreadsheets?

Because you really like spreadsheets?

Why would you want to edit or manage your Office documents on your iPhone? I can see the iPad as an option because of the larger screen and keyboard, but doing anything other than making quick changes to a document on your iPhone is a prescription for cramped thumbs. Since there are limited ways to get your files onto the app, you’re restricted on what you’re able to edit. And because you only have certain types of documents that you can work on, that list is dwindled down even further.

Again: Why?

Look, I write all day long and I can see the appeal of the Office 365 system for both individuals and small businesses. For a relatively low price you get five licenses of the Office suite to install on multiple computers (Mac and PC), file sharing via SkyDrive and so on. But accessing these things on your iPhone should almost be a last resort scenario. Yes, you can do it, but should you?

Final Thoughts

To use Office Mobile you need to fulfill three requirements:

  1. Be a current subscriber to Office 365
  2. Have a SkyDrive account and/or access to a SharePoint
  3. Want to edit and/or read documents on your iPhone

This is clearly not the Office experience that most people want on their iOS device, and that’s disappointing. Were it on the iPad, or if you could use the app just like you would the desktop versions, then I think that Microsoft might have something to work with. But since its usage is quite limited, the requirements so restrictive and experience so cramped, it just seems to miss the mark. Instead, it’s just another misstep in the long history of issues between Microsoft and Apple users.

It’s a shame, because this could’ve been something special.


Summary

View and/or edit any Microsoft Office documents that you have stored in one of three potential locations. If this sounds complex and weird, that's because it is.

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