Could Office for iPad mean the end for Windows on phones and tablets?

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At a product briefing yesterday new Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, to the surprise of nobody unveiled Microsoft Office for iPad.

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This is a big deal as Office is apparently used by a billion people worldwide – and given the iPad is the most popular tablet, bringing that experience to the device seems like a move to be welcomed. The demo was pretty good too – it seems Microsoft have come up with a nice way to handle the many complex functions of office with touch controls. In essence, you can do the vast majority of things you’d want to do on desktop Office with a tablet. Brilliant.

This contrasts to Windows tablets, like the Lumia 2520, which has Office but a non-tablet optimised version. In fact, when you boot up Office on the device, suddenly the screen turns into a normal Windows desktop (complete with taskbar), and you have to operate all of the fiddly things you’d usually use a mouse for with your big fat fingers instead. It is not a good user experience.

So it raises the awkward question: Why would anyone want to buy a Windows tablet now? What unique things does Windows on a tablet have left that would make it preferable to an iPad? I genuinely can’t think of anything.

So what about phones? You may have seen this vaguely dystopian advert from Nokia, boasting of the fact that you can now access your spreadsheets whilst tucked up in bed:

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It already seems like quite a weak boast: unable to compete on games or social apps, boring old Nokia have got to compete on business functions. But here’s the thing… the iPhone has a version of MS Office now too.

So has this latest announcement of Office for iPad killed Microsoft’s USP for their devices once and for all? Does it suggest that Nadella has effectively given up on ever making Windows phones and tablets competitive?

Office isn’t the first time they’ve built apps for rival devices. On the desktop, there’s long been Office available for Mac, and even on mobile apps like Xbox Smartglass and One Note have also been made available on iOS and Android. The difference here is that this is really Microsoft giving up and sharing the family silver.

It’s probably unlikely that this will signal any broader strategic change – dumping Windows on tablets and phones would be hugely embarrassing to the company, and would massively change perceptions of how healthy Microsoft is… so pouring money into the tablet OS blackhole will inevitably continue, even if Nadella has tacitly acknowledged that their own devices are failing.

What I’m wondering if this could signal a shift in how the tech titans work together – which could ultimately be better for the consumer. Not only have Microsoft signalled that they’re happy to develop for Apple, but earlier this week there were rumours of Apple developing the iTunes music store for Android – which would be an equally bold move. Google, of course, have long supported the iOS platform with apps and the like.

Could we be moving towards a situation where apps and platforms are – to use a zeitgeisty phrase – consciously uncoupled? If Microsoft, Google and Apple all make apps available on each other’s platforms, then users will be able to pick and choose which services and platforms they use – which is a much preferable situation to having to choose sides between two great power blocs.

And hey, whilst I’m wildly speculating, maybe Nadella could be tempted to do something completely unexpected and make exclusive Xbox titles multiplatform too? It’s hugely unlikely as gaming is somewhere that Microsoft has a large enough stranglehold, but surely there’s a bunch of PS4 players who would love to play the next Halo?

James O’Malley