Microsoft Office for iPhone – A Bid for Mobile Real Estate

The Microsoft Office for iPhone app may not be transformative, but it gives Microsoft a foothold in the mobile AppleVerse. It has also stirred up a surprising amount of controversy for a business app, a category that usually does not stir up big passions. One major online publication went so far as to call it “dumb.”

On second thought, however, controversy over Microsoft’s new iPhone app for Office 365 should not be a surprise. After all, it does push a couple of emotional buttons. Apple versus Microsoft is one of the oldest and biggest red buttons in the tech world, now in its second generation. (Human generation, that is; it is in about its upteenth tech generation.)

The app pushes another emotional button relating to the bring-your-own-device trend. Some IT managers, especially security specialists, are none too happy about employees logging on to the company network with their personal mobile devices. And some employees are none too happy about workplace restrictions being placed on personal devices they paid for themselves.

Form Factor Rules

But there is also another, hidden button that the Microsoft Office for iPhone pushes: questions about the capabilities and limitations of smartphones and mobile computing in general.

Will Oremus writes about the app in Slate‘s “Bad Idea of the Week” column – and the headline goes even further, bluntly calling it a “dumb idea.” Oremus himself may not have written the headline, but he authored the underlying critique.

If you use the Microsoft Office for iPhone app, he says, you “will find that your iPhone is still an exceedingly poor tool for editing documents, fiddling with spreadsheets, and whipping up PowerPoint presentations.”

Oremus’ critique is probably correct in that regard, though there are likely some people out there who will find a way to write novels or develop complicated business presentations on their iPhone (or Android phone, or Windows Phone phone). For the rest of us, content creation on a smartphone beyond a tweet or brief text message simply isn’t feasible.

Form factor, or the physical size and shape of devices and their interfaces, is subject to some iron constraints by the human form. Keys, physical or virtual, can only be made so small before typing becomes cumbersome. A screen that fits in your hand will not provide a big-screen experience.

A Foot in the Mobile Door

Both Apple and Microsoft know of these limitations, but Microsoft still thought it was worth providing the iPhone app, and Apple thought it was worth allowing it into its tightly guarded App Store.

Not many people will do serious business work on their smartphone, but a lot of people may want to refer to business documents while on the go, and perhaps make a small annotation here and there. So long as Microsoft Office rules business productivity apps and the iPhone rules the executive pocket, Microsoft Office for iPhone makes good sense.