Office for tablets: Microsoft's Godot

Halfway through the first quarter of 2014, Microsoft's 'touch first' version of Office is still nowhere to be found

By , IDG News Service |  Enterprise Software

Apple launched the iPad four years ago, igniting a tablet frenzy that altered personal computing at home and at work, but Microsoft has yet to release an Office version for touchscreen devices.

Much is made about the absence of full, native versions of Office for iPads and Android tablets, but Microsoft hasn't even readied one yet for its own touch-optimized Windows 8 OS, released in October 2012, thus depriving its own Surface tablets of a great sales incentive.

As the clock ticks and users wait, rivals continue shipping new mobile productivity apps and perfecting existing ones that for many people provide functionality that is acceptable and, in the absence of Office, does the trick.

So with each passing day, Office's risk of irrelevance increases as a tablet productivity software suite, which in turn endangers the growth and future of one of Microsoft's most important businesses.

Compounding the delay is the reticence of Microsoft officials to speak clearly regarding the company's plans and timetables. In September and October, former CEO Steve Ballmer said on a couple of occasions that Office versions for iPad and Android tablets were in the works, and would ship after the "touch-first" version for Windows 8.

However, marketing chief Tami Reller was much less clear about the plans during a public appearance last week. Asked for comment about a touchscreen version of Office, a Microsoft spokesman said via email this week that "we don't have any specifics to share" but reiterated Ballmer's statements that the company is working "on touch-first enabled versions of our core Office applications -- including Word, Excel and PowerPoint."

"We can tell you that people's needs are always changing when it comes to productivity applications and Office continues to change with them, whether that means enhancing existing applications, shifting to cloud services, extending Office to mobile devices or adding entirely new applications to the Office suite," the spokesman said.

At this point, the timing of these products may be a moot point. They're late.

"It's taken way too long. Work on an interface for touch-based Office should have started shortly after the iPad was released, at the latest," said Michael Silver, a Gartner analyst.

Critics have theorized that Microsoft deliberately dragged its feet on prepping a version of Office for the iPad out of fear it would hurt Windows and help iOS. It's also understood that adapting Office for touchscreens is a tall order.

Whatever the reasons, time is of the essence, according to IDC analyst Melissa Webster.

"It's critical. Without a touch version of Office, Microsoft will become a dinosaur," she said via email. "There's a whole generation that thinks touch first."

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