First Look

Microsoft Office for Android makes up for (some) lost time

Microsoft's long-overdue Office apps for Android tablets may be too little, too late

Microsoft Office snail crawl slow
Credit: iStockphoto; flag: Vjom

It may be about four years late to the game, but Microsoft is finally ready to bring its Office suite to Android tablets -- well, almost.

Microsoft announced an open preview of sorts for the Android tablet-friendly versions of its Word, Excel, and PowerPoint apps last week. The apps, which had been available in a closed preview program since November, can now be downloaded from the Play Store by anyone with a compatible device -- a tablet of at least 7 inches with Android 4.4 or later, an ARM-based processor, and at least 1GB of RAM. They're completely free to use for the moment, though they require a Microsoft account for anything beyond basic document viewing.

Because the new apps are considered previews, I'll withhold final evaluations until the official consumer versions arrive. Even now, though, the software feels fairly complete -- enough to give us a good idea of where Microsoft is headed and what type of experience we can expect.

While no official release date has been set, anyone interested in taking up Microsoft’s call for feedback should join the Office for Android preview pronto and get cracking.

User interface and design

The first thing you notice about the new Office tablet apps is that they don't seem like they were designed for Android. Microsoft's user interface is attractive enough, but it feels out of place on the platform -- with little effort given to conforming to Android UI standards or the basic navigational conventions that are native to the environment.

Microsoft Word for Andriod Preview

Microsoft Word for Andriod Preview: The main screen for Microsoft Word reveals an app that doesn't go far in conforming to Android UI standards.

Perhaps not surprisingly, then, getting around the apps isn't always intuitive. When you open one of the programs for the first time, for instance, you're given the choice to sign in with a Microsoft account or to skip that step and sign in later. But if you opt to skip sign-in, you’ll quickly realize that you are unable to use much of the program's functionality. Worse, there's no clear way to sign in to a Microsoft account from the app's main screen. There's not even so much as a menu anywhere in sight.

To get to the sign-in option, you have to tap "Open other documents," which brings you to another page that has a Settings option -- and that's where the sign-in command resides. I'm not sure anyone would figure that out without a healthy dose of frustration.

Microsoft Word for Android Preview

Microsoft Word for Android Preview: Oddly, users must navigate to this “Open other documents” screen to find Settings, including account sign-in options.

Another example: All three Office apps have top-of-screen tabs for File, Home, Insert, and so forth. Tapping most of the tabs brings up a series of options on the screen, directly below the tab titles and above your document. Tapping File, however, takes you out of your document and to a whole other page -- the same one you get when you tap "Open other documents" from the app's main screen. It's an unexpected and jarring behavior that feels like a lazy adaptation of a desktop environment instead of a design for the tablet form.

Some basic commands are also bafflingly hidden and difficult to find. Want to print a document? You'll have to exit the editing process and go into that separate File/"Open other documents" page to access the option. Want to copy, paste, or delete a PowerPoint slide? You'll have to tap the slide's thumbnail on the left side of the editing screen, then long-press the thumbnail, then tap an overflow menu icon that appears near it in order for those options to appear.

I could go on, but you get the point. For an app this long in the making, I'd expect a bit more polish and attention to user experience.

Functionality

Interface quirks aside, Microsoft's Office apps for Android tablets offer a fair amount of functionality (so long as you sign in with a Microsoft account).

Microsoft Word for Android Preview

Microsoft Word for Android Preview: The document editing screen reveals a familiar array of Microsoft Word features.

In Word, you'll find options for inserting and editing tables, pictures, shapes, comments, headers, footers, and footnotes. You'll have no trouble managing columns and margins or performing spell-checks. Microsoft's own Track Changes feature is even in place, and it works well -- though the UI surrounding it is somewhat confusing at first. The same can be said for Word's find-and-replace function: Somewhat ironically, it may take you a minute to find it -- but once you do, it doesn't disappoint.

Microsoft Excel for Android Preview

Microsoft Excel for Android Preview: Microsoft Excel offers robust spreadsheet editing features, including formulas.

Excel has most everything you'd want in a spreadsheet editor, meanwhile, including a full list of mathematical functions along with commands for formatting and sorting data. Options for inserting tables, pictures, shapes, and charts are also present.

PowerPoint has all the tools you'd need to create and edit presentations on the go. In addition to an impressive array of ready-to-use templates, the app has loads of layout options and a wide range of slick-looking transitions for your slides.

Microsoft PowerPoint for Android Preview

Microsoft PowerPoint for Android Preview: Micrsoft brings an impressive array of templates, layout options, and transitions to Android tablets.

What's missing from all of the new Office apps is support for real-time multiuser collaboration, as you'd find in Google's (otherwise less robust) Google Docs office suite. There's no ongoing automatic saving or synchronization, either, which means you can't work on documents from multiple devices at the same time. Microsoft's apps are also rather limited in cloud connectivity options: Though the company now allows you to connect to Dropbox in addition to its own OneDrive service, that's a tiny list compared to the range of remote storage choices most third-party Android office suites provide.

The preview Office apps also lack the ability to save files in alternate formats like PDF and RTF, and they offer no method of password-protecting your documents.

The big picture

If Microsoft's Android Office apps had come along four years ago, they would have seemed pretty impressive. The problem is that while Microsoft waited, other companies jumped in -- and some of those companies have done an admirable job at filling the void.

The best overall office suite on Android today, OfficeSuite 8 Premium, offers the same basic functionality as Microsoft's apps and then some, including broader cloud storage support, the ability to save to a wider variety of file formats, PDF viewing and editing, and password protection for files -- all with a superior UI that's more intuitive and easier to use than Microsoft's effort. It works equally well on phones as it does on tablets, while Microsoft's phone-based app remains pitifully lackluster. (For some reason, Microsoft has opted to maintain separate phone and tablet apps for Android instead of developing a single app that scales intelligently to devices of any size, as the platform is designed to support.)

In their current incarnation, Microsoft's new Android-tablet-focused Office apps are fine -- pretty good, even. They're only a small step behind the company's iPad-based equivalents, which add in a rudimentary system for multiuser collaboration. But unless your business is dead-set on using official Microsoft software only, it's hard to get excited over "pretty good" when excellent options are available -- and those options are fully compatible with Office standards and deliver consistently compelling experiences on phones and tablets alike.

For Microsoft's apps to matter to anyone other than hardcore or myopic Office devotees, they need to offer something meaningfully better than -- or at the very least on par with -- what's already out there. Unless we see significant changes from these preview versions to the final consumer builds, I'm not sure they'll be up to the task.

This story, "Microsoft Office for Android makes up for (some) lost time" was originally published by InfoWorld.

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