By Mary Branscombe

Opinion: Office for iPad makes sense for Nadella's Microsoft

While Steve Ballmer talked about bringing Office to the iPad when the technology was right, its new CEO Satya Nadella gets to bring that to market as part of the One Microsoft vision. Rather than doing it with Ballmer’s trademark bombast and bluster, Nadella has his own, slightly dry way.

While it’s unmistakably a response to the huge success of iPad and Android tablets, he’s pitching it less as a desperate attempt to jump on the iPad bandwagon and more as a coherent strategy for appealing to consumers plus giving businesses what they need for management and security. And in what’s quickly becoming a trademark, he’s doing it with poetry.

From both the polish of the applications and the number of leaks we’ve seen over the last couple of years, it’s obvious that Office for iPad has been in development for a long time, and was certainly not brainstormed in the five weeks since Nadella took over at Microsoft. Launching it now is a signal that Microsoft isn’t the Windows company or even the Office company we’ve known (because it comes alongside device management features in Intune and Azure); in Nadella’s words “there’s absolutely no holding back” and “there’s no tradeoff, it’s just reality.”

It’s also here now because of iOS 7; when the new version came along, the team decided to wait to launch Office until they had it working on the new OS in order to allow the hardware acceleration with features like rotating images in PowerPoint. And it’s here now so it doesn’t distract from the news Microsoft will have about Windows next week at Build.

Office for iPad leads the way

It’s also apparent we’re going to get Office on every device you can think of, whether it’s a Microsoft brand or not. The vision is straightforward: “We’re going to make sure the one billion Office users and growing have access to the Office experience on every device they love to use.”

Office for iPad is just the beginning: “Our commitment going forward is to make sure we drive Office 365 everywhere – across all phones, across all tablets, across the Web and across all PCs.” Which means we should definitely expect Office for Android some point soon, as well as regular updates to Office for iPad – and we’re expecting news about Office on Windows RT at Build next week.

It’s obvious that Nadella’s vision for Microsoft has confused some people even at Microsoft; when his first company wide email said the new direction was “mobile first, cloud first” he quickly got the typical nit-picking Microsoft question back of how could they both be first? Which is another way of asking what does devices and services actually mean.

Office for iPad

For Office, it means getting Office on iPad and elsewhere. It’s free if you just want to look at the documents you’ve already created, or with a subscription if you want to create and edit documents – including the cheapest Office 365 personal subscription, for one PC and one tablet. It’s making Office good enough for users to want to use it instead of Quip or any of the new iPad alternatives, so they’ll be happy with it at work and want it at home.

For those who are going to dismiss Office for iPad as “too little too late” Nadella was quick to point out that the tablet isn’t the only new device that will ever come along; from smart rooms with sensors to wearables of all shapes and sizes, to machines learning and the new ways we’ll work with more intelligent devices, “the world of the next five years, the next ten years will not be defined by the form factors we know and love today but the variety of form factors that will come to be.” When something displaces iPad the way iPad has displaced PCs, he wants Microsoft to be ready for it.

Cloud on everything and beyond

This means letting developers build on Office 365, like being able to put electronic signatures into Office documents on your iPhone. Because DocuSign has built on the new Office 365 APIs, it also means letting IT pros – who Nadella subtly complimented by noting the occupation is as stressful as any CEO’s – manage the documents, the devices and the services, using Azure Active Directory, Intune and single sign-on for cloud applications.

These services can be used even if they’re not from Microsoft, and rights management that controls the information inside documents (on Samsung Knox and on iPad as well as Mac and Windows) won’t hinder them either. Microsoft still wants to be emulate how an IT team keeps control, but of many more things beyond Windows PCs.

In other words, while Office for iPad is what we’ll all be thinking about, Nadella has much bigger ambitions. He wants Microsoft to be where you go to get “a cloud for everyone on every device.” He wants the experience to be “magical” (a word you were more likely to hear from Steve Jobs than Steve Ballmer, who would have talked about the numbers behind the magic).

The poem Satya Nadella chose to quote the first time he spoke publicly since he became Microsoft CEO was Little Gidding, by T.S. Eliot. “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time,” he said, explaining that five weeks as CEO gives you a different perspective from 22 years building technology at Microsoft.

But if you read on, there’s another line that also applies to what Microsoft – and Nadella – have to deliver: “A condition of complete simplicity (costing not less than everything).” Office for iPad looks great and makes sense as part of a Microsoft strategy that costs Windows its central role at the company – but Microsoft and Nadella now have to deliver the same for every other Microsoft product as well.