Office Mobile Apps: What’s New?

DevToolsGuy / Wednesday, January 21, 2015

It’s not uncommon to see a company gradually change its direction. Whether this is achieved through a business plan, marketing campaigns or a new product range, it’s not inconceivable for a firm to steer away from its previously charted course. Within the IT industry, the most vibrant example would be Apple, who navigated away from their roots as a hardware company and moved towards elegant, well designed consumer electronics under the guidance of Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ives.

We could now reasonably argue that Microsoft has begun a similar transition, stepping away from its Desktop and Server roots to a more cross-platform, mobile-centric future. In one of his first press conferences Satya Nadella mentioned that the direction he envisaged for Microsoft’s future was one that prioritised Mobile and Cloud. There are several products where the first shoots of these changes are visible, and this is particularly true with the Office Suite. Historically, the Suite has been locked into Windows and desktop platforms. This is now no longer the case as Microsoft have evolved the applications to a cross platform, cross device offering.  A simple glance at the Mobile Office Page confirms this. In this blog post we’re going to explore some of the more recent changes.

iPhone and iPad Freemium Apps are released

Until last November, the only form of Office Mobile App was single utility that permitted you to connect to One Drive to view documents. Furthermore, an active subscription to Office 365 was needed if you wanted to anything that extended beyond viewing your files. That all changed when Microsoft released free to use iOS versions of Office heavyweights, Excel, Word and PowerPoint. Optimised versions for both iPad and iPhone have also been announced.

There is a caveat to this extra flexibility though. You’ll only get basic functionality with these applications, with additional features (such as advanced formatting and viewing options) requiring you to take out an Office 365 subscription. In taking such a path, Microsoft is subscribing to a “Freemium” model that has been utilised by firms such as Amazon, Rackspace, Heroku and various video game companies. 

Currently these individual apps are available only to iOS devices, but Android tablet equivalents are in testing with Android handsets due to follow soon after.

Updates to Core Apps / Office Mobile Updates

So, with all that said, what do these changes actually mean? First, breaking the core applications into their own standalone products does provide more creative utility. The fact that Microsoft has chosen to optimize per device means that you’ll have a comfortable experience on any iOS device. iPhone Office Web Apps recreate the Office Ribbon in such a fashion that it’ll be usable with just one hand. It also has a separate reflow option that’ll allow you to resize documents, making them easier to read in this medium.

While these are the headline changes, some smaller configurations have been made to Office Mobile (for all platforms). This is the unified application that links to OneDrive and affords viewing rights. The nature of the changes is to provide more flexibility in accessing and sharing content.  The first change is that you are now able to generate and email links to OneDrive stored documents; previously this was only achievable via the desktop interface.

Dropbox Integration

The second change to the Office Web App is the addition of Dropbox as a content source for the Office Mobile App. Interestingly enough, this was announced only a few days before the iOS Standalone apps. On face value, this allows a mobile user to access and edit their Dropbox stored files as well as being able to distribute them. On its own, this extra collaborative functionality is pretty useful, but when we consider that Microsoft recently added Dropbox support (see below) to some select Yammer clients, it does make you think about where else Dropbox integration may arise and if it will extend to additional Microsoft authored apps.

Wider areas such as mobile device management

With the avalanche of new and planned functionality for Office Mobile Applications, it’s prudent to consider the possibility of data loss, especially with more and more employees bringing their personal devices into the workplace. 

In reaction to this, Microsoft has starting developing solutions known as Mobile Device Management.  Due to be released in the first quarter of 2015; these features will provide sufficient utility to manage access to Office 365 data across a variety of devices. Some of the pending features include:

  • Applying Mobile Device Settings: Caters for device level pins and applies jailbreak protection on devices.
  • Selective Office 365 data wipe: Allows a company to remove all Office 365 data whilst leaving personal apps, data and photos untouched.
  • Applying security policies: You can set security policies to connected devices to ensure that Office 365 data is only connected to phones and tablets that are managed by the company.

Necessity - the mother of invention

In closing, it’s clear that the notion of “Office on the Move” is going to be the future direction for Microsoft Office. In a world where people can book tickets, read books and produce and interact with content “on the go”, Office really had to change direction or risk losing out. If this sounds somewhat cynical, we can give an appreciative nod to how Microsoft is choosing to do this.

Rather than seeking to retain a huge, upfront investment to upgrade the entire suite, they’ve chosen to embrace the Freemium model instead. Adobe successfully showed what a large and successful software company can achieve by moving their Creative Cloud onto a monthly subscription option, and this is a model Microsoft look likely to replicate.