Just How Viable Is the Mobile Office?

Handheld devices might be all the rage, but editing documents or spreadsheets on them is still difficult. Mobile OSes are getting better, though, and some applications can provide relief. Here's your guide to the current options.

Lately, we hear a lot about people replacing laptops with slates, or trying to perform work tasks on a mobile phone. But how viable is it, really, to work on a mobile device that isn't a laptop running Windows or even Mac OS X? What if it isn't running Microsoft Office or can't run Office? What if the screen size or lack of a physical keyboard or pointing device gets in the way?

Having been an iPhone user since 2007, I've tried many times to write articles or other lengthy content on my iPhone. I don't believe you can -- at least not very easily. There are several problems with it. But most of these aren't unique to the iPhone.

For a long time, the iPhone didn't allow you to connect a keyboard, so you'd need to use the on-screen keyboard. Try typing 3,000 words and editing them repeatedly using a tiny on-screen keyboard -- it would be an exercise in frustration, to be kind. You can now connect a Bluetooth keyboard to the iPhone (and iPad) beginning with iOS 4, as you can with some Android devices, but then you still have to deal with the screen and find some method or tool to prop up the phone for typing.

Windows Phone 7, even with the 7.5 update (formerly code-named "Mango"), does not allow for Bluetooth keyboards to be connected. Android tablets running the tablet-optimized version of that OS code-named "Honeycomb" do support Bluetooth keyboards. One immediate advantage to full Windows-based tablets would be the ability to connect to Bluetooth, or any keyboard for that matter.

Before leaving Microsoft, I was a fan of Windows XP Tablet PC Edition -- my first system was one of the first slates, a Motion Computing Tablet PC. The system had many of the same weaknesses. While it let you use handwriting, my handwriting -- I'll admit it -- is atrocious, and OneNote did not translate my chicken scratches well. Rather than using the on-screen keyboard (osk.exe), I relied on an external USB keyboard and a folding folio case -- amusingly, the same configuration I use with my iPad now, albeit over Bluetooth instead of USB.

While the iPhone 4 dramatically improved the clarity of the display, it's still a very small display on which to try and render complex text or Office documents and retain formatting and richness. This isn't unique to the iPhone, either. Android and Windows Phone 7 may offer marginally larger screens (some more than four inches in size, depending on the device), but the simple fact is that no mobile phone makes a great replacement for a 10-inch or larger screen. Try editing a Word table, Excel worksheet or PowerPoint document on a four-inch screen -- it becomes challenging, if you can even find an app that allows you to do it.

While non-Windows tablets offer much larger screens than the four-inch profile of most mobile phones, the industry seems to be settling around Apple's 10-inch profile first set by the iPad. A 10-inch display does allow for significantly more editing space, but it's still confining if you're used to a 13-inch or larger laptop screen, and definitely can feel confining if you're used to large cinema desktop displays.

Due to screen real estate, the iPhone has a very limited window to display content, and even spreadsheet controls such as the worksheet-selection control must be relegated to a button/dialog combination instead of the familiar tab metaphor we've all used for years. To view an entire spreadsheet, you must pan around the window with your finger -- not the stuff that productivity dreams are made of.

The iPad is significantly better in that you have worksheet-selection controls that are very similar to Office, and you have a considerably larger window to work with spreadsheet content (you can actually get some sense of what the spreadsheet is about, unlike the iPhone example). However, limitations become immediately apparent, and tasks that I often use, such as sorting rows or hiding columns, are not available. Excel is confined, but I actually find that I miss the robust formatting options in Word most of all.

Outside of screen size and keyboard access, the next issue to overcome is touch. The current generation of smartphones and non-Windows tablets is all about touch and using your fingers to manipulate text and objects on-screen. Sure, it's handy, but it can also make manipulating a cursor, blocks of text, complex formatting or a table very complicated. A lot of this usability depends both on the OS itself and the applications you're editing in.

Viability of Office Alternatives On-the-Go
Screen size aside, the next hurdle you have to overcome is what you'll be editing documents in. Assuming your task is to edit Microsoft Office documents, you have quite a few choices on iOS or Android, though none are named "Microsoft Office." They do not come from Microsoft (other than a very limited OneNote app for iOS), and all come with a significant number of caveats as to what document types they can view or edit, and what they can do while editing.

There are three things to be concerned with when you're examining mobile alternatives to Microsoft Office. The first is the fidelity the application gives when viewing Office documents -- this is especially critical on phone devices where you're more likely to be viewing, not editing, documents. What do I mean by fidelity? Fidelity is the amount of formatting in a received document that you can actually see or, ideally, edit.

Second is how well the application can edit documents. Can it safely edit (or edit at all) the document types you need to make changes to from your mobile device? PowerPoint seems to be the sticking point for most of these apps to date -- many don't offer PowerPoint editing, or do but have unknown caveats.

Third, and most importantly, if you do make edits and save and share the document, how sure are you that the document has not lost any of its original formatting, revisions or comments, or that it can be opened by the original author from within Office? A sure way to lose friends in the office is to stomp all over someone's edits in an e-mailed document. As with many non-Office suites, most mobile Office platforms do not support comments or revisions -- something that can prove fatal if your mobile intentions are anything other than writing new documents, or quickly editing existing documents.

In addition to interacting with the documents, you may find small things about the application that just don't work the way you're used to. The application UI, keyboard shortcuts, document-formatting limitations (such as a lack of bullet or outlining functionality), spellchecking or document macro support may limit your ability to use or make the most of the application.

Office on Windows Phone 7 Unlike Android or iOS, Windows Phone 7 includes Office applications that are truly scaled-down versions of their desktop counterparts, and are included for free in Windows Phone 7. These applications support viewing and editing, but were limited until clipboard support was added to the Windows Phone 7 platform after its release.

Word Mobile 2010 supports many types of rich formatting and automatically re-flows documents to fit the phone.

Excel Mobile 2010 supports editing entire workbooks, including charts, and supports 114 frequently used functions. PowerPoint Mobile 2010, much like many competitors, supports viewing and simple manipulation of whole slides, but does not support editing of slide content. Windows Phone 7 also includes OneNote Mobile 2010.

Office on Android and iOS
While Apple iOS supports opening Microsoft Office documents (for example, if received as an attachment in a message), it does not support editing. Android, except in cases where specifically addressed by carriers or device manufacturers, does not support viewing or editing Office documents out-of-the-box, but there are free viewers available for download.

While several products on the market address one or more of the Microsoft Office document formats, the two predominant Office suites on Android and iOS are the same: Quickoffice ( and Documents To Go ( The products range from $9.99 to $19.99, and are generally offered in versions for mobile phones and tablets that must be purchased separately for each device type. This entire article was written on an iPad 2 running Quickoffice Pro HD using an external Apple Bluetooth keyboard.

If you're examining using one of these office suites, I'd encourage you to read reviews and ask any friends who have used either suite before you purchase. Though $20 is much less than we all used to pay for Office suites, it's no fun to buy an application -- especially one at the higher end of the price range -- and have it not do what you want, or have it be crash-prone.

As noted earlier, there's a free OneNote application for iOS, but it's an iPhone app that hasn't been redesigned for the iPad, where it would likely prove most useful. Plus, it's very simplistic when compared to OneNote for Windows -- which, unlike Office, is not available in any form for Mac OS X.

Collaborating via SharePoint
Beyond Office, you may also be using SharePoint Online or a hosted SharePoint 2010 instance. There are quite a few applications available to connect to SharePoint to collaborate on Office documents. Moprise, Filamente and SharePlus all have iPad and iPhone applications; SharePlus also supports Android. Windows Phone 7 supports SharePoint 2010 and doesn't require a third-party app. Prices range from free to $14.99, depending on the product and features.

As with Office suites, you should evaluate reviews and test these apps before trying them in your organization. They don't always work with all SharePoint implementations -- for example, some may not support claims-based authentication if you use ADFS with SharePoint Online.

Document Security Is a No-Show
Outside of Windows Phone 7.5, no mobile OS supports rights-protected documents such as those created using Office Information Rights Management and Windows Rights Management Services. This limits the enterprise potential of mobile devices where content needs to be protected while in motion. While this isn't a showstopper for most small or midsize customers, it could be an issue for organizations seeking to keep their Office documents secure from prying eyes.

Nevertheless, though we're in the early stages of Office documents on non-Windows mobile devices and there are lots of metaphoric sharp edges, the applications are moving fast, adding new features and functionality, and becoming more powerful very quickly.

About the Author

Wes Miller is director of product management at CoreTrace in Austin, Texas. Previously, he worked at Winternals Software and as a program manager at Microsoft. Contact him at [email protected].


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