Microsoft Office for iOS: Almost great

It has been roughly four years since Microsoft finally embraced iOS as a platform for their Office suite. And after countless revisions, the rollout of unique capabilities for iPad users, and more, it seems clear that Microsoft has successfully achieved the creation of an Office ecosystem that allows users to seamlessly view and author documents across platforms, and across Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote. Even Outlook has joined the cross-platform party.

How well does it work? Well, therein lies Microsoft’s continuing challenge.

When I purchased a large-screened iPad Pro with Apple’s keyboard cover roughly a year ago, part of my justification was the existence of the Office apps for iOS, and the promise of that connected, cross-platform ecosystem, bound together with Microsoft’s OneDrive cloud storage as the glue, and an Office 365 subscription as the enabler. The past year or so, however, has left me fairly well convinced that Microsoft continues to miss the mark slightly.

Functionally speaking, Microsoft has clearly done a very good job of optimizing the feature set of the various Office apps to align with the wants and needs one naturally has in a mobile experience, as well as the limitations of mobile devices like the iPhone and iPad. The capabilities include pretty much everything you truly need to have, without a lot of frills and stuff you really don’t need. Yes, it means that putting finishing touches on documents sometimes involves opening them on the desktop where the features exist to do those touch-ups, but you can be surprisingly productive without ever opening a document anywhere but the iOS device.

So where are they still missing the mark?

  • Activation pain. To enable full capabilities (like document editing) on an iPad, you need an Office 365 subscription, and you need to activate the app with your subscription. That’s all well and good. The problem is that the activation system for the apps just doesn’t work that well.One might naturally expect that the activation would need to be done monthly, or on whatever cycle at which one’s Office 365 subscription renews; that it would be set, on the device, to expire at the same time, or shortly thereafter. That’s not how it’s been done, however. Instead, I’m pretty much constantly required to reactivate by entering my Office 365 credentials. The cycle seems random; sometimes I can go for multiple weeks without being required to do it. Sometimes it’s days. Sometimes it’s today, then again tomorrow, then again the next day. Of course, Internet connectivity is required to activate, so if I’m on an airplane without WiFi, I’m locked out of document editing. As you might imagine, this requirement pops-up at the most inconvenient times possible. Surely there must be a better way.
  • OneDrive dependency. By default, and by design, the Office apps for iOS all use OneDrive cloud storage for documents (while you have the option of local storage too). That’s great; generally I want that, because it’s the foundation for enabling cross-platform editing. But, in a flaw that’s as painful as the activation problem (and seemingly related to it), the Office apps — all of them — randomly have issues storing documents to OneDrive, even if they’re activated. File sync and file saving suddenly just plain stop working. The only fix? Log out of the app, and log back in again, refreshing the connection to OneDrive.My question is this: If the app is activated, and it knows your credentials (or should), why does it not just refresh whatever needs to be refreshed with OneDrive, given that the credentials are the same? Puzzling. More puzzling? How does it “forget” in the first place?
  • Usability flaws. While Microsoft has optimized the mobile feature set well, as I said earlier, they’ve not organized those optimized features all that well. Take Word, for example. Just six items are shown on the menu bar, each with a Spartan set of features. In a nod to the File menu item of the desktop version, there’s a tiny little file-ish looking icon under which they’ve crammed all the file manipulation items, along with printing, and the various help options. But what about file sharing? Oh, that’s there too — under the printing option. (Huh?)The point is that figuring-out what options are actually available in the mobile app, and where they’re located, is generally an exercise in frustration, and requires touching your way through all the menu choices to see if something’s there, and if so, where.Inserting a page break is a good example of this, and of the lack of continuity. While I’m sure that the current state is based on usability testing and focus group feedback and other things you’d expect a big company like Microsoft to do when developing software, one begins to wonder if that’s really the case. On the MacOS version of Word, you’ll find page break insertion under the Insert menu item — in the menu bar at the top of the screen. Maybe it’s just me, but that’s where I always go to find something I’m going to insert. Within the application’s own window, however, there’s another Insert menu item with a different set of functions than the “other” Insert menu items, one from which the page break function is omitted. No, in the application window, you’ll find page break under the Layout menu item. Alas, that’s where it is in the iOS version too. That was actually a conscious design choice?

Don’t get me wrong, I think Microsoft’s Office 365 offers a great deal of value. I have the Office 365 Home subscription, which for $100 a year, or $10 a month, provides up to five users in my household full use of both the latest desktop software and the latest mobile applications, and provides a whopping one terabyte of cloud storage (per person) via OneDrive. That’s a price point and a value proposition that’s already caused me to cancel my Evernote and Dropbox subscriptions and end-up with a net-net of more functionality with a much lower total out-of-pocket monthly spend.

But as much as I like it, I still keep hoping that the iOS user experience evolves to be a bit less frustrating than it is today.