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Microsoft beefs up Office on iPhone with standalone apps

Microsoft beefs up Office on iPhone with standalone apps

The company is also letting non-Office 365 subscribers do more with the Office apps on iOS and Android devices

Microsoft is releasing standalone Office apps, including PowerPoint, for the iPhone, replacing the integrated Office Mobile suite

Microsoft is releasing standalone Office apps, including PowerPoint, for the iPhone, replacing the integrated Office Mobile suite

Microsoft, reluctant for many years to port Office to rival platforms like iOS and Android, changed course little over a year ago and is now doubling down on its cross-platform effort.

The company will strengthen Office in iPhones, offer more functionality to non-Office 365 subscribers on iOS and Android and begin testing versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint for Android tablets, as it tries to make up for lost time.

Office, dominant for decades on desktops and laptops, faces a crowded field of competing Web, cloud and mobile productivity apps from large rivals like Google and Apple, and from smaller vendors like Quip and Zoho.

On Thursday, Microsoft will revamp its Office Mobile for iPhones, which has had a lukewarm reception since its launch in mid-2013 as an integrated suite for doing lightweight tasks on Word, PowerPoint and Excel, by unbundling the apps and making them standalone tools.

The versions of Word, PowerPoint and Excel for the iPhone will as a result offer significantly more functionality than they do now, as they're built from the same code base as their cousin apps for the iPad, which are more powerful than Office Mobile, according to Amanda Lefebvre, Office marketing manager.

Microsoft decided to upgrade the Office experience on the iPhone in part because the Apple smartphones are getting bigger and people are able to do more document editing and authoring on them. "This is great news for iPhone users," she said.

Another motivating factor could be that Microsoft sees a need to have a stronger offering as it battles competitors, since Office Mobile hasn't been a hit. It has been reviewed about 1,840 times on the Apple App Store and has an average rating of 2.5 stars out of a possible 5. By far the most common rating it has received is 1 star.

Microsoft plans to replicate the move for users of Android smartphones, probably early next year, by upgrading them from Office Mobile to standalone Word, Excel and PowerPoint apps.

The company will also become more generous towards users of the Office apps on iPhones, iPads and Android devices who don't subscribe to Office 365. These people have been limited to viewing documents, spreadsheets and presentations. Now, they will also be able to create documents and perform what Microsoft describes as "core" editing functions, like altering text in Word, adding data in Excel and modifying slides in PowerPoint.

The move is clearly aimed at attracting more users for these iPad apps, with the hopes many will become Office 365 subscribers, who get access to more sophisticated functions like tracking changes in Word, creating pivot tables in Excel and accessing presenter view in PowerPoint. They also get 1 terabyte of cloud storage on OneDrive and the right to install the full Office suite on Mac or Windows desktop and laptop computers.

Office apps for iPad have been installed 40 million times since their release in March, and each has a 3-star rating on the App Store. Apple has sold 225 million iPads since the tablet was launched in 2010.

Finally, Microsoft will start a beta test of the three Office apps for Android tablets, and interested users can submit their requests to be included in the program. Microsoft expects to have the apps ready for general availability in early 2015.

So how about the long-promised, touch-screen optimized Office apps for Windows tablets and smartphones? Lefebvre said those will be ready for when Windows 10 becomes generally available at some point next year.

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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