Microsoft: Now you can create, edit on Office mobile apps for free

Use of the Office suite on mobile devices had been restricted to customers with a subscription. So will the freebie route pay off for Microsoft?

Microsoft's new Office mobile apps comes to the iPhone. Photo by Sarah Tew/CNET

When you're mobile, you likely want robust, free software that works with a lot of apps and that can be accessed anywhere. So far, Microsoft has failed to embrace those concepts -- but it's working to change that.

The software giant on Thursday unveiled a handful of changes to its Office software on smartphones and tablets running Apple and Google's operating systems, refreshing its Word, PowerPoint and Excel apps to make them friendlier for the mobile age.

The most notable change is that users of Apple's iPhone and its iPad tablet, or of devices running Google's Android operating system will be able to create and edit Office content for free. Before this, getting access to those capabilities required an Office 365 subscription, which starts at $6.99 a month.

Microsoft is the latest company to embrace the concept of "freemium," where many core aspects of a game or app are given away, but there's also an option to pay for additional bells and whistles. The shift represents Microsoft's revamped strategy of going after as broad a market as possible.

"We want more people to use our applications," Amanda Lefebvre, an Office product manager, said in an interview. "Usage is a primary goal for us. We want to give them more reasons to use our product."

As part of the changes, Microsoft also decided to blow up Office for the iPhone, which included basic versions of Word, PowerPoint and Excel all in one app. Instead, it's now providing three standalone apps of Word, PowerPoint and Excel with more capabilities, just like the company did with its Office for iPad apps.

These changes come just two days after Microsoft and cloud-storage company Dropbox unveiled a collaboration to allow users to access Dropbox directly from Office apps and edit Office files from the Dropbox app.

While the Office suite of word-processing, spreadsheet and presentation software have dominated in the PC world, Microsoft has had little success utilizing that software to draw customers to its Windows Phone operating system on mobile devices. Apple's iOS and Google's Android operating systems control nearly all the smartphone and tablet market, with Microsoft's system powering just 2.5 percent of mobile devices, according to researcher IDC.

Under CEO Satya Nadella, who took over in February, Microsoft is taking a different tack, trying to make Office more open on other operating systems to increase its user base and hopefully convert more people to premium subscriptions, which include a handful of more powerful tools on the mobile apps. The changes may also help Microsoft draw some customers away from Google's productivity tools, which many users can access for free.

"We want to be where our customers are, and we want to make sure that we have a caveat-free commitment to phones and tablets," Lefebvre said.

With the premium versions of Office apps, customers get more editing tools in Word, such as custom color changes of text and more precise controls for editing charts and tablets. Also, paying Word users can see documents in both portrait and landscape, while free users can in most cases only see documents in portrait. For PowerPoint, the paid version comes with "Presenter View," which lets users see their notes and a thumbnail strip of the upcoming slides on one screen.

As part of the changes, the iPad apps were updated and will be available starting Thursday, along with the iPhone apps. The Office apps on the iPad tablet have seen some success, with over 40 million downloads so far. Microsoft didn't disclose the number of iPhone downloads.

Apps for Android tablets can be previewed by customers if they sign up starting Thursday, but general availability of the new software isn't expected until early 2015.

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