If you're familiar with Microsoft's product portfolio, you know that the firm's "mobile first, cloud first" strategy is heavily tilted towards the latter half of that phrase. That is, Microsoft has had a lot more success moving its on-premises products—Windows Server, Exchange, SharePoint and the like—to cloud services than it has moving traditional software products to mobile devices. But there's one major exception to that rule: Office. And a coming generation of Office apps for touch-first mobile devices could very well revolutionize how we think about productivity going forward.
Like most Office users today, I spend a lot of time typing away on a keyboard in front of a desktop- or laptop-based screen. But Office is being adapted to popular large-screen mobile devices—iPads and Android tablets—as well as Microsoft's own mobile platforms, Windows 8.x ("Modern") and Windows Phone. By the time 2014 draws to a close, we should have a very different set of Office experiences from which to choose.
To be clear, Microsoft already makes a stripped down Office Mobile for Android handsets, iPhone and Windows Phone. These mobile apps provide basic Word, Excel and PowerPoint experiences (in addition to separate OneNote and other related mobile apps) but wouldn't ever be confused with full Office. (You can't create or edit PowerPoint presentations in any meaningful way, though to be fair, the Office Mobile apps do a good job of retaining the underlying formatting in any document you do open on your phone.)
The new Office Touch experiences, as I'll call them, are far more interesting.
The first version, for iPad, is available now. This provides full-featured Word, Excel and PowerPoint apps. Microsoft will ship an Android version in the fall, and, I'm told, a version for Windows—which will work with Windows 8.x, Windows RT 8.x, and Windows Phone 8.1+, which is interesting—in early 2015. The Windows version—which will be delivered as a set of universal apps—will likely include a touch-first version of Outlook as well. (Of course, OneNote and other Office apps are available across these platforms too.)
These apps are full-featured. That is, Office Touch isn't positioned as some kind of Office companion, like Office Mobile, something you'd use in a pinch or when you're just unlucky enough not to be near a real PC. Instead, these apps are being developed to be used instead of full Office on a Windows PC (desktop) or Mac. They're being designed for people who would use a full-sized tablet instead of a PC or Mac. They will never achieve functional parity with "full" Office on the PC or Mac. But they will instead provide the most commonly needed features.
As touch-first mobile apps, these Office Touch apps will of course respect all of the touch-based user experiences that users expect on the respective platforms. But these apps will work with hardware keyboards, too. Late last week, I spent some time reacquainting myself with Office for iPad, for example, and was surprised to see how well it worked with Apple's Bluetooth keyboard (though you need some kind of tablet stand too, since the iPad doesn't provide a kickstand). This isn't a compromised experience, it's the real thing.
And if you're feeling burned by the fact that iPad (and, soon, Android tablet) versions of this software are being made available before the Windows version, you can console yourself with two facts. One, Windows users already have a killer, full-featured Office suite to use (though not on Windows Phone). And two, the Windows version will be better, with more features and functionality.
That last bit is good news, but what I'm even more interested in is how Microsoft plans to make these mobile app suites—Office Touch for iPad, Android tablets and Windows—fully manageable through its Intune-based mobile device management (MDM) solutions. These capabilities are, in their own way, as profound as the change from legacy PC management solutions (Active Directory/System Center) to more modern MDM solutions (EAS, Intune and so on).
Consider the basic goal of EAS/MDM today, which is to provide centrally managed policies aimed at keeping corporate data on mobile devices safe. Then consider how these capabilities have evolved over time. A modern MDM solution, for example, can differentiate between personal and work data, so that a remote wipe request doesn't need to blindly wipe out the entire device; now, only work-related data, apps and accounts will be removed by such a request.
As MDM has gotten smarter and more capable, Microsoft has leveraged its decades of device management experience to provide some truly unique features. With Office for iPad, for example, IT will soon be able to set policies that determine how these apps work on users' devices. For example, you'll be able to specify which apps can open which documents, and then whether they can be shared with other apps and, if so, which apps. In this way, you can ensure that a sensitive internal document isn't forwarded via an unknown or untrusted email app.
Put another way, MDM is being evolved to manage more than just the device or the data it contains.
When you think about a full-featured version of Office running on the devices that users actually want—iPads, Android tablets, Windows tablets and even large-format Windows Phones—and how those devices and those apps can soon be managed in very sophisticated ways, you can see the beginnings of a real mobile strategy here. That is, "mobile first, cloud first" no longer looks so one sided. And full-featured Office, once locked to PCs (and Macs), is becoming the poster child for the new Microsoft.