Don't Be Fooled: Office 365 is Basically Useless on Mobile

The hype starts today, so watch out. Microsoft formally launched the long-promised Office 365 set of cloud services for using Microsoft Office, Exchange, Lync (for voice and video communications), and SharePoint in the cloud, available in a variety of subscription options. Even before the formal release today, Microsoft had been marketing Office 365 via emails advertising its capabilities. If you got that ad, you no doubt saw how iPhones, iPads, BlackBerrys, and Android devices (and Macs) were all noted as compatible in the sales pitch for Exchange capabilities. You then saw in the rest of the promo Microsoft touting the rest of Office 365's features' mobile compatibility.

Here's the catch: The Office 365 ad doesn't specifically claim that non-Windows platforms are supported beyond Exchange; it instead switches to the generic word "mobile" in the descriptions of its other capabilities so that you infer that it does. Don't be fooled.

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The truth is that the only part of Office 365 that is thoroughly compatible with a non-Windows platform is Exchange -- and that's been working for years on those other platforms. iOS, Android (via third-party software on smartphones and natively on tablets), BlackBerry (via BES), WebOS, Mac OS X, and Linux (via third-party software) all have mail clients that work with Exchange, and those clients don't care whether Exchange is locally hosted, provided by a third party, or provided via Microsoft in the guise of Office 365. So Office 365 adds nothing over traditional on-premise or hosted Exchange when it comes to email, calendar, and contacts support for mobile platforms (or for Macs and Linux PCs).

Outside of Exchange, Office 365 is largely limited to desktop Windows users, though some SharePoint features work with the little-adopted Windows Phone 7 platform. InfoWorld's Test Center has reviewed Office 365 in the context of a desktop Windows user, but for the rest of us -- especially the 99 percent of mobile users who don't use the Windows Phone platform -- Office 365 is irrelevant because it is unusable.

Although Microsoft touts Web-based editing of Office documents through Office 365 (using SharePoint as the file repository), the truth is that its Web-based editing capabilities (essentially, its old Office Web Apps service) are primitive, like Google's competing Google Docs, and that Microsoft's model assumes -- in fact, strongly encourages -- that you do your editing locally on Office 2010 on your Windows PC, even though the files are stored online. That all but tethers Office 365 to Windows PCs.

I tested Office 365's document editing and SharePoint facilities on Apple iOS 4.3, Google Android (both 2.2 for smartphones and 3.1 for tablets), RIM BlackBerry OS 6, and Google Chrome OS 12.0.742 on mobile devices, and on Mac OS X 10.6.7 Snow Leopard and Ubuntu 11.04 Linux. The results:

Editing files via the browser
As the point of comparison, Office 365 accessed via IE8 on Windows 7 lets you view, edit, and format Word documents in the browser, as well as view, edit, format, and work with objects in PowerPoint documents. It cannot view or edit Excel documents; you must download spreadsheets for viewing and/or editing in an other app.

In this day and age of cloud computing, which by definition means having heterogeneous clients, it's shocking that Office 365's Web apps rely on ActiveX and Silverlight controls for many of their capabilties. That proprietary dependence is why any browser other than a Microsoft one has at best limited access to the documents.

In iOS, Office 365 Web-based editor says you can edit PowerPoints, but you can't insert, edit, or select text. Nor can you import graphics, though you can insert SmartArt shapes -- but not manipulate them. You can add and delete slides. Text selection is similarly unavailable for Word documents, making them uneditable on iOS as well.

In Android 3.1 (on a Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 tablet), Office 365 suffers from myriad screen display issues, likely due to a flaw in Android 3.1 given issues I've had on other websites with Android. For example, selection boxes appear nowhere near what you tap, and when editing text in a PowerPoint file, scrolling is disabled when the onscreen keyboard is visible. Text formatting doesn't work, even though the controls are accessible. For Word files, I could not select text, and the browser eventually froze after repeated attempts -- an issue I've also had on other websites. If you do brave Office 365 editing on an Android tablet, be sure to long-tap the file links; otherwise, the Android browser downloads the files.

In Android 2.2 (on a Google Nexus One smartphone), you can edit Word documents in the browser; you can also view, but not edit PowerPoint documents.

In BlackBerry OS 6, you likewise can edit Word documents in the browser and view -- not edit -- PowerPoint documents. (Be warned that a BlackBerry Torch -- RIM's only modern smartphone -- is excruciatingly slow, even over Wi-Fi, and not realistically a device you can use for Web-based editing, whether on Office 365 or any website. This once-promising device now is downright dowdy compared to competitors' current offerings.)

In Chrome OS, you can also edit Word files and only view PowerPoint documents.

You can edit Word files in Firefox and Chrome on Mac OS X, Windows, and Linux and in Safari on Mac OS X and Windows. You can also do a fair amount of editing for PowerPoint files in these browser. (Note: On Safari, I kept getting error messages saying the SharePoint WebKit plug-in could not be loaded.)

Thus, it's clear that the ability to edit Office documents in Office 365 via the Web is highly limited in a mobile environment. In the case of Android, that seems to be as much as Google's fault as Microsoft's. For the rest, I have no doubt that limitations in the WebKit browsers they all use play a part, but Microsoft's reliance on proprietary Web technologies, as well as my early conversations with some members of the Office 365 design team (who admitted they weren't concerned with non-Microsoft environments), suggest that Microsoft didn't even try.

On desktop OSes beyond Windows, you lose the ability to edit the documents in place via a local copy of Office, but you can at least download the files to a compatible editor and upload the revised versions.

Editing files via native apps
As the point of comparison, you can edit documents stored in Office 365's SharePoint using Office Professional Plus 2010, the downloadable suite that comes with midlevel and higher tiers of Ofice 365 subscriptions. You can also use the regular edition of Office 2010 if you download the Office 365 from Microsoft's Office 365 site, as well as the severely crippled Office apps that come with Windows Phone 7.

Because Office 365 is tied to Windows Office for application-based editing, you can't open files in SharePoint in any Office-compatible app on any non-Microsoft operating system -- not even in Office 2011 for Mac, which Microsoft has not Office 365-enabled (par for the course in this perennially crippled product).

In iOS, you can preview a document, then open it in a native application such as Quickoffice, Documents to Go, or iWork for further ediiting, but you can't then send the changed document back to the SharePoint collaboration site, not even from a compatible application (as iOS has no common document store) -- which means you can't collaborate.

In both Android 3.1 (the tablet version) and Android 2.2 (the smartphone version), you can download files and edit them locally, then upload the revised file. Note that a simple tap to a filename in Office 365's SharePoint downloads the files; you will not get a menu as in other browsers. Also, uploading requires that you first select a compatible application from which to choose a file; you can't upload directly from the device's local document store. These are both Android issues, not Office 365 ones.

In BlackBerry OS 6, you can download Excel files (but not Word or PowerPoint files) for editing in a native BlackBerry app, but you can't send the file back to SharePoint.

In Chrome OS, you can also download Excel files (but not Word and PowerPoint), edit them via a Web app (like Google Docs, ironically), and then upload them back to SharePoint.

Using Mac, Windows, or Linux browsers, you can both upload and download documents from Office 365.

As you can see, in the mobile environment, at best you can get documents from a SharePoint collaboration site for local use on a non-Windows device, but not check them back into the workgroup. Instead, for iOS and BlackBerry at least, you'll have to mail them to a Windows-using colleague. On a non-Windows desktop, you can check out a file and download it to your desktop for editing in a compatible app, upload the revised file, and check the document back in for others to use.

Or, better, use a cloud service such as Box.net that integrates with Google Docs, and skip the Office 365 exclusionary strategy entirely. Google Docs has its own issues on mobile browsers, so I don't recommend doing extensive work in Google Docs on an iPad or Droid, but at least you can collaborate in a pinch. With Office 365, you're stuck on a desktop computer or forced to use a Windows Phone 7 smartphone that fails in a big way in most respects, such as not supporting basic corproate security requirements.

It's clear that Office 365 isn't really cloud computing, but merely a hosted version of its on-premises server software. That approach all but guarantees irrelvance to mobile users.

This article, "Don't be fooled: Office 365 is basically useless on mobile," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Galen Gruman's Mobile Edge blog and follow the latest developments in mobile technology at InfoWorld.com. Follow Galen's mobile musings on Twitter at MobileGalen. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

For comprehensive coverage of the Android ecosystem, visit Greenbot.com.

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