Microsoft looks to find its way in mobile app market

The decision to offer a lot more features for free in its mobile Office apps is Microsoft's latest attempt to attract iOS and Android users

By unlocking core edit functions in its free Office apps for iOS and, later, Android, Microsoft is trying to close out pesky rivals in the mobile market and lure new subscribers to Office 365.

Accomplishing those goals is vital if the company is to protect and grow its huge Office franchise. But success is far from assured, with the latest moves coming seven months after it released Word, PowerPoint and Excel for the iPad, and more than a year after an initial, weaker version of Office Mobile for iPhones.

The iPad apps were widely praised, but many questioned the wisdom of requiring a subscription for anything beyond the ability to view properly formatted files, since the App Store is brimming with free alternatives, including Apple's iWork and Google's Docs, Slides and Sheets.

"This is a rebalancing of what Microsoft makes available for free," said Phil Karcher, a Forrester Research analyst.

It's offering enough capabilities to expand the number of free users it can attract, while">reserving a set of "premium" capabilities that could tempt them into subscribing to Office 365.

"Having to pay just to edit documents was a high hurdle. With the rebalancing, customers are more likely to get sucked into using the free version of the app," Karcher said.

Office Mobile for iPhones, which shipped in mid-2013, was panned for its lack of functionality, and until March this year it required an Office 365 subscription to use it. Reacting to the poor response, Microsoft is now replacing it with standalone apps for Word, Excel and PowerPoint that are more powerful because they're built from the same code base as the iPad apps.

Similar apps will be offered for Android tablets and smartphones early next year. And a touch-optimized version of Office for Windows tablets and smartphones will be released with Windows 10, possibly by mid-2015.

"Microsoft realized that compared to the competition, it wasn't looking real great, so why not offer consumers apps they can truly use, " said Guy Creese, a Gartner analyst. "This is a response to market pressures to give users what they'd like to have."

But time is of the essence. The iPad has been out since 2010, and during the period when Office was non-existent for iOS and Android, and when it later required a subscription, people latched onto whatever productivity apps were available.

"We did a field research study about 18 months ago and asked people what they were using [for mobile productivity] and it was all over the map," Creese said. "In the absence of Office, they resorted to a wide variety of apps."

A portion of those people will stick with what they've gotten used to.

While the moves this week are aimed at the consumer market, there will be an effect on enterprises as well. "Its primarily a consumer market move, but people carry expectations into the workplace based on what they experience in their consumer lives," Karcher said.

And use of mobile apps is growing more and more in business, for both accessing and creating content. In a survey earlier this year, Osterman Research found that information workers spend around one third of their typical workday on a mobile device, half on a desktop computer, and 15 percent not working on a computer at all. The firm also found that 42 percent of work-related electronic content is used on a mobile device, while 31 percent is created on a mobile device.

"The announcements are part of Microsofts continued realization that it needs to focus increasingly on mobile users in order to maintain growth in its Office franchise, and that the Surface tablet is not going to provide the avenue of growth into the mobile space that Microsoft needs," said Michael Osterman, the company's president.

Juan Carlos Perez covers enterprise communication/collaboration suites, operating systems, browsers and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Juan on Twitter at @JuanCPerezIDG.

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Juan Carlos Perez

IDG News Service
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