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New apps improve iPad's Microsoft compatibility Add to ...

As you would expect of an independent technology analyst, Carmi Levy usually carries lots of technology with him when he travels. But on a vacation last year, he decided to lighten his load on a short trip to Quebec City. So he took only an Apple iPad along.

Sure enough, before he had even checked into his hotel Mr. Levy received an e-mail requiring him to do some work. So he turned to his iPad and found that, in fact, he could work on a Microsoft Corp. Word document quite effectively.

Mr. Levy doesn’t expect his iPad to replace his laptop. “When I’ve got a heavy work session ahead of me,” he says, “I’m taking the laptop.” But “I think productivity on the go is one of those killer apps that we haven’t yet seen for tablets, but we’re going to see in 2012.”

That means the iPad isn’t just for passively consuming content, analysts say, but can be a tool for creating it.

That, in turn, may help its adoption in business.

“I don’t know that you’d want to create a complex spreadsheet on the iPad,” says Mark Tauschek, lead research analyst at London, Ont.-based Info-Tech Research Group. “But certainly doing some light editing or creating a Word document is pretty practical.”

As the number of applications allowing the iPad to manipulate documents rather than just viewing them increases, Info-Tech has changed its view of the tablet’s role somewhat, Mr. Tauschek says.

“More and more businesses are looking to support employees working on multiple platforms,” adds Krista Napier, senior analyst and mobility team leader at research firm International Data Corp. (Canada) Ltd. in Toronto.

There always have been ways of working with documents in Microsoft Office format – the dominant standard for word processing, spreadsheet and presentations – on the iPad. Apple’s Pages word processing app, Keynote presentation tool and Numbers spreadsheet can edit Office documents, although, Mr. Levy says, they don’t always work perfectly with documents that have complex formatting. Those “can and will fall apart when you translate them onto an iPad,” he says.

Though he prefers the word-processing functionality of Apple’s Pages, Mr. Levy turned to Documents To Go, Milford, Conn.-based DataViz Inc.’s tool for viewing and editing documents on the iPad and various smartphones, on his Quebec trip because it better maintained the integrity of his Word documents.

Quickoffice Pro, from Quickoffice Inc. in Plano, Tex., is another choice, Mr. Tauschek says, and Microsoft’s Office 365 provides online access to Office documents from almost any Internet-connected device.

And the number of options is growing. Late in 2011 CloudOn Inc. of Palo Alto, Calif., launched an iPad app of the same name that allows iPad users to edit Office documents in the cloud. CloudOn runs the Microsoft software on its own remote servers, so iPad users can connect to the applications via the Internet and edit their documents.

When it first launched, CloudOn was so overwhelmed with downloads that the company had to pull its app from the Apple App Store. It returned in early January, and now CloudOn seems to be keeping up with demand.

A similar offering from OnLive Inc., also of Palo Alto, debuted at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January. Like CloudOn, OnLive Desktop operates actual Microsoft Office software on remote servers, so iPad users can tap in via a network connection. Unlike CloudOn, OnLive is not yet available in Canada – the company would not say when it will be.

One drawback of these cloud options is that they rely on a network connection.

“The promise of a fully cloud-based solution is often better than the reality,” Mr. Levy says. On an airplane, for instance, a cloud-based editor may be of little use. Mr. Tauschek advises prospective users to consider how and when they will work on their iPads before deciding whether a cloud-based service or an app that lives on the tablet itself is the best answer.

In the future they may have more choices. There is widespread speculation that Microsoft will eventually introduce a version of Office for the iPad. “I think it’s inevitable,” Mr. Levy says.

Like all tablets, the iPad is not designed for heavy document creation or editing. The obvious issue is the lack of a keyboard (other than the “soft” on-screen keyboard, which is all right for occasional use but not suitable for long periods of typing). But add-on keyboards are readily available. Mr. Levy points out that several iPad cases come with keyboards, which he says is a good solution since every iPad should have a case for protection.

But whatever options iPad owners prefer, these apps could help the iPad gain ground in business.

“You can never look at a tablet as a full replacement for a laptop,” Mr. Levy says. But he believes that for many people, most of the time, a tablet could be a lighter, cheaper substitute. Businesses might consider supplying many employees with tablets rather than laptops, keeping a small supply of laptops available for situations where a tablet isn’t enough.

“I think it’s still early days for tablets in the enterprise,” Ms. Napier says. The iPad is still primarily a consumer product, she says, and while it is making inroads in the office, that is largely due to employees bringing their own devices to work.

“Having those apps is valuable,” she says. “It’s not all of a sudden going to create a huge spike in adoption.”

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