Is Microsoft Losing Its Office Advantage in Tablets, or Making Surface into the Best Productivity Tablet?
Is Microsoft in the process of losing one of the few competitive advantages it has in tablets? That question is being raised following news this week that Google is now offering its Quickoffice productivity apps for mobile devices, including tablets, for free. 

Google bought Quickoffice last year, and those apps enable the viewing, creating or editing of Microsoft Office files on an iPhone, iPad or Android phone or tablet. To sweeten this new deal even more, Google is also offering an extra 10GB of Google Drive storage for the next two years to any user who signs up before September 26. Previously, only Google Apps for Business users got a free Quickoffice version, but they had to pay US$ 50 annually for Apps. Otherwise, it was US$ 15 for the iPhone or Android smartphone version, or US$ 20 for Android/iOS tablets.  

Opening for Competitors

Microsoft has yet to release its prize possession, the Microsoft Office suite, for tablets other than ones running Windows 8 or Windows RT. The apparent thinking at the company's Redmond, Washington headquarters is that, if you want to conduct work with Office documents in their native Microsoft application, then you should do so on a Microsoft tablet.

While Microsoft has released a scaled-down version of Office for iPhone and Android smartphones, its functionality is limited and the user needs a US$ 100-per-year Office 365 account as well as loads of patience in trying to work with Office documents on a small smartphone screen. If you're going to edit Office documents on a non-laptop mobile device, the only semi-sane solution is to do so on a tablet.

That means that Microsoft's current strategy has left an opening for its competitors. In addition to Google’s new offer, Apple recently announced that its iWork productivity apps will be available free on new iPhones, iPads and iPod Touches bought after September 1. IWork offers some Office compatibility, including the ability to open and save Office files or to save iWork files in Office formats.

How Critical is Mobile Productivity?

It's likely that Microsoft is waiting to see if it can truly gain a foothold in the tablet market with its new round of Surface tablets, expected to be released soon.

The Office capability on those tablets could help drive sales and give the company a significant position in this critical category -- but, if it doesn't, the fallback position could be to open up Office to other tablet platforms. To the extent that some level of productivity helps Surface tablets to catch on, it may be because they have the real Office and are regularly matched with keyboards.

It remains to be seen, however, whether productivity apps are really such a critical function for mobile devices. Creating and editing word processing, spreadsheet or slide presentations on a smartphone is a frustrating exercise, and one that only the most desperate mobile worker, equipped with only a smartphone, would dare to undertake.

Working with those documents on a tablet is somewhat better, in that the screen is larger. But unless the tablet is paired with a keyboard and mouse or other pointing device -- a combination that Microsoft is promoting with its keyboard-equipped tablet covers and with some hybrid tablet/laptops -- the actual productivity is likely to be limited.

Tablets’ role as productivity devices may primarily be to serve as a quick way to make some last-minute fixes or to create fairly simple documents, rather than being widely used as a start-to-finish work device for complex docs.