It's unlikely you've ever picked up a phone and said, "Hey, this would be great for building spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations!" Yet vendors are developing mobile document viewers and editors in abundance for iPhones, Androids and other smartphones, and now tablets as well.
You may not want to write more than a sentence on a phone, but people are increasingly leaving laptops behind when they go on business trips or vacations, packing only a tablet and perhaps a Bluetooth keyboard.
The biggest office software vendoe, Microsoft, doesn't make office software for any of the popular tablets, leaving the innovation to smaller companies. With that in mind, I recently interviewed David Halpin, vice president of engineering at QuickOffice, to get his take on the state of mobile documents.
QuickOffice is one of the most mature and widely used office platforms for smartphones and tablets, having been pre-installed on or downloaded to 375 million devices. The software is a Microsoft Office replacement, displaying and editing word processing documents, spreadsheets and presentations in Microsoft format, while integrating with Google Docs and popular online filesharing platforms such as DropBox.
At £12 a pop, QuickOffice is the most popular fee-based business application in the iPad App Store, ahead of rival Documents To Go, and is the fourth highest grossing iPad app across all categories.
Why doesn't QuickOffice face any competition from Microsoft? Although Microsoft has built a OneNote application for iPhone and hasn't ruled out bringing the rest of Office to iOS, Halpin believes Microsoft will continue focusing on Windows phones to the exclusion of rival platforms. The only mobile version of the whole Microsoft Office suite is built for Windows Phone 7.
Microsoft dominated the office market by first capturing the desktop OS market and linking Windows and Office, Halpin notes. By keeping Office on Windows Phone 7 and future Windows tablets, Microsoft can tell enterprises that full Office capabilities including integration with Exchange and SharePoint require Windows phones.
Building Office apps for iOS would be akin to "giving arms to the enemy" in Microsoft's view, Halpin says. "I don't think it's a technical problem at all" preventing Microsoft from building for iPhone and Android, he says. "I think it's a deliberate decision to stay out of that market."
Microsoft's Office Web Apps can be accessed from any browser, but its functionality is limited on desktop computers and even more limited in a phone browser. Unlike Google Docs, Office Web Apps doesn't allow editing in a phone browser or on the iPad.
Editing Microsoft Office documents on a phone or tablet therefore requires a third party application, such as QuickOffice. While most users would rather save heavy editing for a desktop or laptop, QuickOffice is used by many, even on phones.
"Even though some people write term papers with QuickOffice on a mobile phone, I'm not sure that's how I would use the application," Halpin says. "We find people who are serious writers or serious accountants doing pivot tables or massive calculations, clearly you can't do those types of things."
While Google Docs is known to lose some of the formatting of Microsoft Office documents, Halpin says QuickOffice preserves all formatting by displaying the documents in their original formats, rather than converting them into a different one.
Even though the viewing experience is robust, QuickOffice doesn't offer every editing function Microsoft does. That's no surprise given that "Microsoft has thousands of people working on Office for decades," as Halpin says. First and foremost, tools like QuickOffice must provide a perfect viewing experience, with some modifications such as letting text wrap more frequently so users don't have to scroll left and right to see an entire document.
Though it's not as extensive as Microsoft Office for desktops, QuickOffice provides the basic editing tools most users would want on phones, and "as we do move to tablets, that gap narrows," Halpin says.
Rather than blowing up the QuickOffice phone app to tablet size, the company built the tablet app from the ground up, making it behave similar to a desktop application but with touch gestures. As Microsoft's Office team continues to shun the iOS and Android markets, QuickOffice is examining how its own product can integrate with Microsoft's new cloud service, Office 365, as well as Apple's iCloud.
"People, quite frankly, want to use the tablet as a desktop replacement, and they're expecting applications to behave and support the same capabilities," Halpin says.
QuickOffice, which was spun out of Palm in 2002, builds apps for iPhones, iPads, Android, Symbian and Palm (now HP's webOS). QuickOffice does not support Windows Phone 7, ceding the Windows mobile market to Microsoft. QuickOffice also stays away from BlackBerry, which has backed the Documents To Go product line.
Apple, meanwhile, offers its own Pages, Keynote and Numbers for the iPhone and iPad, but the products primarily work with Apple's own document formats rather than Microsoft's. Pages is the highest grossing iPad application.
But according to Halpin, Apple has worked with QuickOffice to optimise its software for iOS and ensured that its own productivity tools would not harm QuickOffice's business. Conversely, QuickOffice is capable of viewing Pages documents, but can't edit them.
"We have a great relationship with Apple," he says. "They understand that their bread and butter comes from third party developers. They've done a lot of work with our product to make it work better and look better."