Google Wages War on Microsoft's Office with Free iOS, Android Apps

Google on Thursday released new Android and iOS versions of its Quickoffice app, a mobile-only alternative to Microsoft's Office suite, and announced they are now free for the taking.

Google on Thursday released new Android and iOS versions of its Quickoffice app, a mobile-only alternative to Microsoft's Office suite, and announced they are now free for the taking.

The move puts more pressure on Microsoft to offer Office on iPads and Android tablets, an analyst said.

"Google's taking the opportunity to get people to use their technology and adopt it," said Al Hilwa of IDC, "so that when Office comes [to tablets] those people already have what they need with Google's apps."

"We're making Quickoffice available for free to everyone: students, businesses, nonprofits, governments, consumers and anyone with a Google Account," said Alan Warren, head of engineering for Google Drive, on a Google blog yesterday. "Simply sign in with your Google Account to start editing Microsoft Office Excel, Word and PowerPoint files on your iPhone, iPad, Android phone or tablet."

Quickoffice, which can both edit existing documents and create new ones, relies on Google Drive to access Microsoft Office documents, spreadsheets and presentations that users have uploaded to the search giant's online storage service, and to store new files built from scratch on a smartphone or tablet.

Before Thursday, customers paid $14.99 for Quickoffice on iPhones or Android smartphones, and $19.99 for a version for Android or iOS tablets.

Google bought Quickoffice in June 2012, then rolled the firm's development team into its Google Apps group.

This was not the first time Google made Quickoffice free: Last December, the company offered an iPad-specific version to Google Apps for Business customers. In April, Google expanded the free deal when it launched an iPhone version and others for Android smartphones and tablets.

Google Apps for Business is a cloud-based suite that costs $50 per user per year, and is the company's linchpin in its battle with Microsoft for enterprise productivity customers.

Quickoffice, now free on both iOS and Android to anyone with a Google account, lets users edit -- although with difficulty -- Word documents, Excel spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations on an iPhone.

Google has also baked Quickoffice into Chrome OS, the browser-based operating system that powers Chromebooks, and added Quickoffice document viewing to its Windows and OS X Chrome browsers.

Most analysts believe that Microsoft's reluctance to port Office to devices powered by rival operating systems has opened the door to others' mobile productivity apps, and caution that by delaying Office on the iPad and Android tablets, Microsoft risks losing customers.

Redmond, so the thinking goes, has withheld Office from Android and iOS tablets as a strategic move to protect Windows and the tablets that it and its OEM partners sell. Windows RT, the scaled-down version of Windows 8 that powers the Surface RT, Microsoft's beleaguered tablet, comes with Office. And the legacy version of the suite, Office 2013, is a big part of Microsoft's marketing of its own Surface Pro, as it is for OEMs that produce Windows 8 tablets.

Microsoft has shipped Office for Apple's iPhone and Android smartphones, tying both apps to Office 365, the company's "rent-not-buy" software subscription model. But as experts have pointed out, there's a big difference between availability on a smartphone, where document editing is nigh impossible, and on tablets, which are much more conducive to content creation.

"Every day Microsoft waits, Office market share erodes," said Hilwa on Thursday. "People will learn to stick with the other stuff."

Google and others -- Apple last week began giving away its iWork productivity apps to new iPhone and iPad buyers -- are counting on convincing consumers to try their wares while Microsoft dawdles.

"They're hoping that traction in the consumer side will somehow sway enterprises," said Hilwa. "There's a little bit of truth to that."

But he also said that Microsoft's headlock on the enterprise productivity market is safe for the foreseeable future. "All the functionality that Office has accrued in a company, whether that's templates or employees' invested skills, makes it very hard to switch. So Microsoft has some time [to offer Office on others' tablets] because of Office's stickiness in the enterprise.

"Meanwhile, Google and Apple are taking advantage of the absence of Office as much as they can," Hilwa said.

Other experts have downplayed the idea that Office can be unseated from its catbird seat in the enterprise, including Wes Miller of Directions on Microsoft, who on his personal Getwired blog was blunt. "Nothing will ever replace Microsoft Office -- at least for the time being for a huge chunk of business users," Miller wrote.

Like Hilwa, Miller saw rivals' opportunities primarily among consumers. "The users who have likely had the most 'success' (using the term loosely) with replacing Office are likely individual users ... who are simply using Office documents as containers, not using any Office-specific features [in] much depth, and can likely survive just using the document export features in Google Docs, iWork, or any other Web/mobile productivity suite not from Microsoft."

Hilwa added small businesses to the groups that can abandon Office for alternatives. "Small companies tend to behave like consumers," he said.

"There's some exposure for Microsoft here," Hilwa continued. "Microsoft is playing a game of brinksmanship by betting that Office is more valuable as a push start for Windows. Whether it plays out [that it loses customers by withholding Office on the iPad] is, of course, another story."

On Thursday, Microsoft dropped several hints that it's aware of the Office-on-iPad argument and the risk it faces by not taking the suite to the iOS and Android tablet market, and that it would make that move.

During the company's Financial Analysts Meeting, a half-day confab Thursday on its campus, several executives, including CEO Steve Ballmer, made that clear.

"We are working on touch-first versions for our core apps in the Office suite, Outlook, Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and we will bring these apps to Windows devices, and also to other devices in ways that meets our customers' needs, and the customer value of those experiences, and in ways that economically make sense for Microsoft, and at a proper timetable," said Qi Lu, who heads Microsoft's Applications and Services Group, which includes Office.

Ballmer wasn't as specific in referring to Office directly, but he was even more adamant about Microsoft taking its services -- which include Office 365 -- to other platforms. "Services have to find their way onto non-Microsoft devices, and we certainly have to support that without religious bias," Ballmer said during the Q&A session with Wall Street analysts yesterday.

None of the Microsoft executives spelled out a timetable for bringing Office on iPads and Android tablets, however.

"They shouldn't be sitting on their laurels," Hilwa warned.

Quickoffice can be downloaded free of charge from Google Play, the official Android app marketplace, and Apple's App Store.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

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This story, "Google Wages War on Microsoft's Office with Free iOS, Android Apps" was originally published by Computerworld .

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