Microsoft Office Mobile for iPhone [Review]


It has been a long time coming, but Microsoft Office is finally available on the iPhone. Strangely, it is not available on the iPad, and for both iOS and Android tablets Microsoft still recommends using the web-based apps for free SkyDrive accounts. The iPhone client can only be used by those with an Office 365 subscription, which costs $100 for an annual subscription. If you are a subscriber, you download and sign in or create an account.  What you get is an application which is practically a direct port of the Office suite found on Windows Phones.

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The Windows Phone look and feel echoes throughout the app, with Metro (the former name of Microsoft’s new design language) all over. However, the app still conforms to the usual iOS structure. Some have criticised the app already for a poor mixture of the two styles. However, the interface felt intuitive and natural to me, with the exception of text selection. Whereas iOS usually lets you select a word by long-pressing, this app requires a double-tap to highlight a word.

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Unfortunately, the app has inherited the same limitations as the Windows Phone Office suite as well.  It is not possible to create PowerPoint files, and Excel formulae cannot be copied and pasted. You’ll also find that OneNote is not part of this Office suite, though it has been available separately as an iOS app for quite some time. This also reflects the situation on Windows Phone – OneNote was part of the Office “Hub” in WP7, but separated into a separate app in WP8.

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The iPhone Office suite has four tabs (or buttons) at the bottom of the screen, which reflect the different pivots of the Windows Phone Office hub panorama. Just as with the Windows Phone “Places” pivot, you may add SharePoint accounts.  A shortcut to your SkyDrive and/or any of its folders can be added to the Places list for easy access, as well as SharePoint Online (part of Office 365 for business) and on-premise SharePoint.

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One could be forgiven for saying that it’s too late for Microsoft to enter the market as there are more than enough alternative office suites, most of which have rich functionality and dependable file                     compatibility. However, there will always be some formatting that may not survive the round trip to a mobile client and back to the desktop. At least with Microsoft’s own client, you can be sure your original formatting will survive being edited on your iPhone. That being said, Office Mobile for iOS only offers limited formatting capability.

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Word

This will probably be the most used segment of the mobile Office suite, and Microsoft has given it proportionate development time. It starts out in a read-only view, which I hoped would display a print layout. Instead, both the read and edit modes show a line-wrapped version of the document. This indicates that the app is intended for quick reference, rather than formatting.

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Tables are displayed without line wrapping, which can lead to a degree of horizontal scrolling. Similarly, images are shown as in the desktop versions of Word, but they cannot be edited or removed nor can you add tables or images.

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Despite these limitations, you can do all of the essentials such as changing the font size, color, highlight color, along with bold, italics, underline and strikethrough. However, there are no paragraph or heading styles available either – this is just the same on the Windows Phone version of Office.

Excel

Excel gives a clean representation of its desktop counterpart. If you were worried that you might not have access to a plethora of Spreadsheet functions, do not fear as there are more functions than you can reasonably count, or compare against the desktop client. Within a spreadsheet file, you are able to switch between sheets.

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Excel doesn’t have a read-only mode like Word. After selecting a range of cells, opening the edit menu allows you to create a chart of use the “Autosum” feature. These require some explaining. Creating a chart creates a whole new sheet, rather than embedding in the current sheet. Additionally, the Autosum feature does not insert a sum formula into the spreadsheet. Instead, it brings up a window with various calculations on the highlighted range, such as sum, average, minimum and maximum. You are also able to add comments to cells and freeze ranges – the latter is useful for keeping headings visible while scrolling through large amounts of data.

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PowerPoint

The presentation part of the mobile Office suite is far less functional than its siblings. It can display the contents of a file in a no-or-little compromised form. However, there are few editing facilities. It is not possible to create PowerPoint files, nor can you add or remove slides from a file. All you can do is edit comments to each slide, and edit text frames within a slide. Given the third party options out there, this is disappointing.

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Conclusion

This is far from the all-singing all-dancing Office suite that you may have been dreaming of. It does what it does well, but there are severe limitations on what it can actually do. Given that most Office users have yet to take up the subscription option, many cannot even access it.  This being said, the Metro-inspired design is a welcome break from the skeuomorphisms of iOS, and it will match even better with iOS7. I also find it disappointing that you have to be online to access your files. Even in this age of cloud computing, sometimes you need offline access to files, and as of yet Microsoft hasn’t provided that on iOS or Windows Phone.

If you’re rarely out of signal range, and you only need to read or make minor adjustments to files, then it makes perfect sense to use Office for iPhone, if you’re already an Office 365 subscriber. However, if you need to work offline or to have greater editing capabilities, then you should keep looking at the competition.

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