Free Microsoft Office Apps on Your iPad

OnLive Desktop for iPad offers full Windows versions of Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents in the cloud at no charge—with a few caveats.

Rumor has it Microsoft plans to eventually release iPad editions of its Office apps. In the meantime, there’s OnLive Desktop (free; iPad only) from OnLive, Inc., which offers full access to cloud-based versions of Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint on your iPad.

OnLive Desktop, released in early January (the current version is 1.01), isn’t the first to put Office in the cloud for iPad users. Aside from the various remote desktop apps, CloudOn (free; iPad only) also makes it possible to work within Word, Excel, and PowerPoint on an iPad. (I’ve tried CloudOn and it works well.)

OnLive Desktop goes a bit further, however. Unlike CloudOn, the app presents a stripped-down Windows desktop environment. Along with the three main Office productivity apps, you also have access to Windows utilities including Paint, Notepad, Calculator, Windows Media Player (yes, you can play videos), Windows Journal, and Microsoft Blackboard.

OnLive Desktop screen shot CIO.com

Given that the iPad is a touch-screen device, OnLive Desktop also incorporates the touch interface Microsoft developed for its tabletop Surface system. Using a finger or a stylus, you can add freestyle drawings (such as the yellow circle I added to my Word document; see the screen shot above). The app replaces the iPad’s keyboard with its own "virtual" keypad, which should look familiar to Windows users.

To use OnLive Desktop you must sign up for the service first in a web browser and then manually upload files. Changes made to the documents on your iPad are synced to your OnLive Desktop cloud folder and are securely accessed from web browsers. Files are also synced to the OnLive Desktop on your iPad (provided it’s Internet-connected). Working with Office apps on my iPad was smooth and fast on an 802.11n network.

The Downsides to OnLive Desktop for iPad

And now, the not-so-great news.

Using the iPad’s touch interface in Office’s traditional mouse-driven environment takes some getting used to. Editing long documents with the on-screen keyboard can be downright painful. Trust me: For any serious work, you’ll want a "physical," hardware keyboard. (But that’s true of working on the iPad in general.)

Also, OnLive Desktop uses the 2010 versions of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. That’s fine, but if you’re using older versions, opening files on your computer that were synced from OnLive Desktop on your iPad requires extra steps.

When I jumped to another iPad app then returned to OnLive Desktop, I had to sign in again to resume work. Unlike CloudOn, mentioned above, you can’t access files from a Dropbox or other online storage source; you must manually upload them to the OnLive Desktop server. Translation: You’ll need to plan ahead to edit files on the road. And given that the Office apps live in the cloud, don’t expect to be productive when you’re among the clouds yourself on an airplane with no Wi-Fi.

OnLive Desktop is still pretty amazing when you think about it: Full access to Office apps on your iPad—for free. OnLive Desktop offers paid plans beginning at $10 a month (for 50GB of storage), but you can get 2GB of storage as well as the iPad app at the attractive price of nada. The company says it is developing OnLive Desktop apps for the iPhone and Android, PC, and Mac operating systems. A thin client version is also in development for smart TVs. OnLive Desktop’s iPad app is currently available only in North America and the U.K. but will soon expand to Europe and Asia, according to the company.

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