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Apple's free iWork suite provides alternative to Office for iOS

Diana Hwang

Apple's intention to release iWork for free on all new iOS devices gives end users a native productivity suite and Apple a way to undercut Microsoft's plans to release Office for iOS tablets.

News of Apple's iWork plans came this week in conjunction with its unveiling of its new iPhone 5c and iPhone 5s.

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"This is another Apple Trojan horse," said Chris Silva, principal analyst and founder of High Rock Strategy LLC, a mobile enterprise consulting organization based in Melrose, Mass. "Get users used to the new functionality on their new smartphone devices in time for them to be reliant on these features come October, when new iPads -- arguably the true content-creation devices of the iOS family -- are likely to be announced and available."

Indeed, mobile employees are beginning to use Apple iPhones and iPads not only as content consumption devices, but also to create content.

"If you look at the implications, every Apple device and every iPhone comes with, effectively, an 'Office' suite for free, works well, and has compatibility with Microsoft's applications," said Michael Oh, founder of Tech Superpowers, a Boston-based Apple reseller. "For [Apple] to make the move, it's smart and links [the software] to the device," he added.

For the most part, Apple's free iWork app is a positive move for customers, but leaves millions of existing iOS users with no option but to pay for Apple's iWork or buy third-party productivity suites.

"The only way they could have made it better is to bundle it with all of iOS," said Bob O'Donnell, vice president of client and display research at market research firm IDC Corp., based in Framingham, Mass. "Why not just give it to people who have existing machines?"

Windows-based Office deemed passé

As companies review their mobility strategies and make decisions based on a decreasing PC market that is being overtaken by tablets, organizations are exploring ways to move away from the Windows-based Microsoft Office suite.

For instance, in the spring, the City of Boston said it will move away from Microsoft's Exchange platform and adopt Google Apps for its email and productivity suite.

But not every company is ready to make that sort of change.

"I know our IT department would like to look at decreasing the cost for Microsoft Office suite, [but I do not] see us moving to Google Docs [just yet]," said Steve Nava, director of field service for Luminex Corp., a biomedical products company based in Austin.

Nava is not yet ready to put his full support behind iWork, either.

"The limitation of iWork on an iPad is the ability to input information in a rapid manner with a physical solution," he said. He noted that add-on keyboards have yet to replace a true keyboard on a laptop, especially for people with large fingers.

It remains to be seen whether iWork will be the best option for employees who need a way to edit and view their Microsoft Office documents on iOS devices. A Microsoft Office Word document may not always be 100% compatible to Apple's word-processing software, for instance.

But over time, those issues will be resolved as Apple shores up its offer ings, analysts said.

Where is Microsoft Office for iPad?

Microsoft had delayed the release of an Office for iOS suite in a strategy to prevent a sales hit to its own Surface tablets, which essentially offers a full version of Microsoft Office. The decision not to release Office for iOS is perhaps one of the downfalls of Microsoft's flailing mobile strategy.

The company recently provided an Office Mobile for iPhone app that enables Office 365 users to create and lightly edit Word and Excel documents and view PowerPoint presentations. Office Mobile for iPhone can work on the iPad either as a small or "2X"-scaled screen, but Microsoft recommends using Office Web Apps on an iPad instead.

Microsoft's omission of a true iPad version of Office is a glaring hole in its mobile Office strategy. Financial analysts have pegged Microsoft as theoretically losing billions for not having released an Office for iOS suite already.

Apple's free iWork could push Microsoft to release Office for iPad, even if it is two years too late, analysts said.

"They continue to put themselves at risk for that enormous cash cow," O'Donnell said.

Whether iWork can offer enterprises an alternative to the traditional Microsoft Office suite or the successful Office 365 remains to be seen.

"The question is whether Apple is successful in spreading the word [of how] that's how people can work," Oh said.


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Is iWork a sufficient Office replacement?

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