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With New Freemium Versions for iPhone and Android, Microsoft Office Really Is Everywhere

Much of the power of full-blown Office arrives on more devices–even for non-paying customers.

When Microsoft brought its Office productivity suite to the iPad last March, it was a moment rife with symbolism. By putting powerful versions of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint on Apple’s tablet, the company made clear that it was serious about reaching people on the devices they wanted to use–whether or not they used an operating system with “Windows” in its name.

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Now Microsoft is rolling out new versions of Office for the iPhone and Android tablets which make that be-everywhere vision even more tangible. Similar in look, feel, and features to the iPad edition–and sharing some of its code–they’re among the most ambitious productivity apps ever to show up on iOS and Android. (The company recently gave me a sneak peek at them.)

At the same time the new versions are debuting, Microsoft is tweaking its business strategy for Office in a way which makes the mobile versions of the suite a lot more interesting to a lot more people. Until now, the iPad version–the most robust non-Windows incarnation of Office–has only let you edit documents if you’ve sprung for the Office 365 service, which provides access to Office and related offerings (such as unlimited OneDrive cloud storage) starting at $70 a year. Henceforth, basic editing features on iOS and Android will be free, with certain advanced tools being held back for paying customers. That puts Office in more direct competition with other mobile productivity apps available for little or no money, such as Apple’s iWork programs and Google’s Docs and Sheets.

Excel for iPhone, with the Ribbon interface on the bottom

Office has actually been available for iPhones and Android phones since last year, in a version called Office Mobile. It bundles Word, Excel, and PowerPoint into one app which is fine for viewing documents and making very basic changes, but not much else. Like Office on the iPad, the new iPhone and Android tablet versions break out the three tools into their own apps. And Microsoft hasn’t stinted on features: They’ve got revision marking, rich charting options, pivot tables, and many of the other tools which make Office, well, Office.

In the past, some makers of office-type apps for small devices have operated on the philosophy that such software didn’t need to do all that much, since nobody was likely to use a smartphone to compose a history of western civilization or prepare a Fortune 500 company’s annual budget. The new Office for iPhone, however, errs on the side of offering lots of sophisticated stuff. “There isn’t a principled ‘can’t-do-this-on-a-phone’ thing,” says Michael Atalla, a director in Microsoft’s Office division, of the design philosophy. “We believe you should be able to move between devices with ease. And the phone is very powerful–that’s the new reality.”

At the same time, the company has made some adjustments to reflect the fact that these are versions of Office for devices with small screens and no physical keyboards. Word has an option which reformats documents for easy reading–similar to the reader view built into apps such as Safari–and Excel opens up more space for spreadsheets with a full-screen mode. On the iPhone, the suite’s Ribbon toolbar appears below documents rather than up top, and expands into a menu interface designed with little-screen usability in mind.

Free–Up To a Point

If you’re using Office on iOS or Android without paying for Office 365, any documents you open will display with all their formatting intact, no matter how fancy. However, freeloaders won’t be able to perform some editing tasks, such as accepting or rejecting changes in Word, changing data labels in charts, and applying reflection effects to images.

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The freemium concept–offering some features for free, and charging for others–is everywhere these days. It’s unusual, though, for the items which are and aren’t gratis to be specified on quite as granular a level as Microsoft is doing with Office. Here’s hoping that it isn’t unnecessarily confusing. (If you do end up paying, Office 365 is fairly priced for what you get.)

The new Office for iOS runs on both iPhones and iPads, and is available now. Office for Android tablets is debuting as a preview, with the final version scheduled for release in early 2015. Microsoft also plans to release an updated Office for Android phones, similar to the other new ones, in the near future.

And here’s one of the most startling things about the new Office, and what it says about Microsoft’s willingness to embrace multiple platforms: The very last major platform it will arrive on is Windows itself.

Microsoft has been providing glimpses of a touch-friendly new version of the suite using the Windows 8 “Modern” interface since last year, but Atalla told me that these apps-which will have much in common with the new iPhone and Android versions–will show up at the same time that Windows 10 does. That would place their arrival at around the middle of 2015.

Had Microsoft made a tablet-optimized version of Office available earlier, it might have been clearer to more people why they might want Windows 8, which has struggled since its release in October 2012. The fact that it went ahead and released versions for other platforms as they were ready, rather than holding them back until the Windows edition was done, is definitive proof that this company is no longer your father’s Microsoft.

About the author

Harry McCracken is the technology editor for Fast Company, based in San Francisco. In past lives, he was editor at large for Time magazine, founder and editor of Technologizer, and editor of PC World.

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