Office Automation for iOS

Office Automation

Both Microsoft and Apple have been sparring with each other for marketshare. Microsoft has apparently adopted a strategy of using Office to hold iPhone and iPad users hostage. Their hope is that by denying iPad users Office for the iPad they will force the adoption of tablets running Windows 8.

Meanwhile Apple has a good suite of powerful, low cost office automation products for the iPad; Pages (MS Word equivalent), Numbers (Excel equivalent) and Keynote (PowerPoint equivalent). Unfortunately, for some inexplicable reason they have not updated these products to provide compatibility with the latest version of the Office document formats (.docx, .xlsx, and .pptx). They have maintained compatibility with the previous document format types (.doc, .xls, and .ppt). This alone wouldn’t necessarily be an issue but when we bring SharePoint into the mix it does become a problem.
Let’s talk about SharePoint for a moment. SharePoint is a powerful platform that provides a great repository for documents. They are accessible from a Windows desktop using Internet Explorer, a Mac using Safari and from either an iPad or iPhone using Safari or even a Microsoft Surface or other Windows-based tablet with Internet Explorer. The first challenge is to resolve the user experience on a tablet. The only clients for SharePoint offered by Microsoft are Internet Explorer and apps such as SkyDrive, SkyDrive Pro and SharePoint Newsfeed. These apps are targeting Office 365 and require a Microsoft Consumer Account such as hotmail. I’m not talking about Office 365. I’m talking about on-site enterprise hosted SharePoint environments. To date, I have also been unsuccessful in finding a 3rd party SharePoint client for Windows. 
When you use IE on a tablet, the experience degrades proportionally with the smaller screen size. You can interact with a SharePoint site on a Windows Phone using Internet Explorer or on an iPhone, or iPad Mini with Safari but it involves a great deal of zooming and panning. Infragistics’ SharePlus to the rescue. Infragistics makes an outstanding SharePoint client, SharePlus for iOS. It provides the experience expected of a native iOS app and makes interacting with SharePoint a good experience. This solution allows documents to be checked out or even synchronized for offline use on an iPhone or iPad Mini. On a Windows-based tablet, the experience is not very good because the only option is to use a browser.
Pages for Document Editing
Once you have a document local, more often than not, the next step would be to edit the document. This brings us back to office automation. In order to have a seamless experience editing and interacting with SharePoint there are a couple of requirements:
1. The editor must be able open and allow editing .docx document format.
2. The editor must be able to retain the original formatting.
3. The editor must be able to retain track changes.
The Windows platform shines here because the editor is Office. Pages now does a pretty good job of retaining the formatting and tracking changes; however, when a document is opened in Pages or editing it imports the original document. When you finish editing and want to post it back to SharePoint, Pages exports the document as part of the process. The problem is that it will only export to a .doc format. If the original document was a .docx, the an update to SharePoint will result in a new document, not a new version of the original document.
Testing More Editors
During our research we put a number of Office document editors for iOS to the test the three requirements listed above. The included the most popular products such as QuickOffice (which was acquired by Google….and is likely to see significant updates for Office compatibility); SmartOffice; CloudOn, a cloud-based Office emulator; Polaris Office; Textilus, AI Writer, OnLive Desktop, and DocsToGo. None of these completely satisfied the requirements. DocsToGo came the closest. It was able to support the .docx format, and track changes. It did a reasonable job at retaining formatting but had problems with complex documents that included extensive tables and it didn’t handle track changes or comments.
A Few Words about Office Web Apps
Microsoft released Office for the iPhone in July 2013 but did not release a version for the iPad. When asked what the solution was for editing Office documents on an iPad, the Microsoft response was to use Office Web Apps. This assumes the user is using Office 365. Our testing found that neither Office Web Apps 2010 or 2013 were able to open complex files or files with comments or version tracking turned on.
The Solution
Finally, after more research, an episode of Mac Power Users Podcast noted that a good editor was Office(2) [squared] HD. I downloaded and tested it. I am happy to report that it met all three requirement and also provided a good editing experience on the iPad. Not only that but their iPhone version worked very well and would be usable in a pinch….any editing on a smartphone suffers from scrolling and zooming.
My conclusion is that the combination of SharePlus and Office(2) on an iPad provides the best overall experience on a tablet, either Windows or iOS. The reason for this conclusion is that the SharePlus client provides a superior SharePoint user experience and Office(2) HD does a pretty good job with Microsoft Offices features most commonly used on tablets. A windows-based tablet is limited to using Internet Explorer for interacting with SharePoint. Office(2) HD does a good job of retaining formatting with tables and styles. The one place where it falls down is when the document contains text embedded into a text box with fixed location anchoring.
NOTE: This entire blog post was created using SharePlus Pro and Office(2) on an fourth generation iPad from the comfort of my family room.
Links to Referenced products: