To be clear, Microsoft did not this week announce what many people have wanted for a long time: native Office apps for Android and/or iOS tablets.
Now that that's out of the way, here’s what Microsoft did announce: Intentions to bring Office Web App file-editing capabilities to Android tablets via the Chrome browser. Unfortunately, the announcement, which came in a May 7 blog post, didn’t say exactly when Android tablets will get the same "lightweight" (Microsoft’s term) Office Web Apps editing tools that iPad and Windows 8 tablet users already have.
Android tablet users should be able to access files in their SkyDrive accounts, create files or perform light edits on those files. The service is free; you don’t need to be an Office 365 subscriber or buy a third-party Office-compatible app. Office Web Apps also maintain the formatting in your Office documents, which isn’t always the case when you use third-party Office apps.
Just how "lightweight" are Office Web Apps? I recently opened a Word file in Microsoft’s Word Web App on my iPad. The document included footnotes, Track-Changes edits and comments, but the Word Web App did not support any of these features.
In its blog post this week, Microsoft said it would beef up Office Web Apps "over the next year and beyond." Some improvements you can expect to see in Office Web Apps on all supported devices:
- Faster launch times;
- Simpler file management;
- Find and Replace in the Word Web App;
- Real-time co-authoring. (Office Web Apps already let multiple users work in the same document simultaneously. But in the future the apps will offer real-time co-authoring, so users can see who else is working on a document along with their edits as they happen; no need to manually refresh the browser. Microsoft says it has already started to deliver real-time co-authoring to the PowerPoint Web App. Real-time co-authoring has been a feature in Google Docs, Google Spreadsheet and other Google apps for some time now.)
So when will the native Office apps for Android and iOS devices be available? A recent PC World article says late 2014. Until then, third-party Office Word Apps might meet your mobile Office needs—as long as those needs are "lightweight." Some alternatives I’ve used and recommend (with caveats) include CloudOn (free), for delivering a virtual Office environment to Android and iOS devices; Office² HD ($8) for iPads; and Quickoffice Pro HD ($20) for Android tablets.