Free CloudOn app puts your iPad to work

Create and edit Word, Excel, and PowerPoint files stored on your Google Drive, Dropbox, or Box account in mobile versions of the Big Three Office apps.

Dennis O'Reilly Former CNET contributor
Dennis O'Reilly began writing about workplace technology as an editor for Ziff-Davis' Computer Select, back when CDs were new-fangled, and IBM's PC XT was wowing the crowds at Comdex. He spent more than seven years running PC World's award-winning Here's How section, beginning in 2000. O'Reilly has written about everything from web search to PC security to Microsoft Excel customizations. Along with designing, building, and managing several different web sites, Dennis created the Travel Reference Library, a database of travel guidebook reviews that was converted to the web in 1996 and operated through 2000.
Dennis O'Reilly
3 min read

Some people still snicker when they see a coworker toting an iPad. After all, who can get any real work done on that Etch-a-Sketch on steroids?

Lots of people, actually. And as the quality and quantity of iPad apps increase, the devices inch closer to becoming workplace essentials.

Case in point: the free CloudOn program whose mobile versions of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint give you the Office 2007/2010 interface when working on files stored on the Google Drive, Dropbox, and Box online storage services.

Support for Office XML file types, and a ribbon to boot
Speculation continues as to whether -- most say when -- Microsoft will release a version of Office for the iPad. (CNET blogger Zack Whittaker cites sources predicting a November arrival.)

It's not like you have to wait months to create and edit Word, Excel, and PowerPoint files on your iPad. Last June I described how to use Google Docs and Google Cloud Connect to edit Word and Excel files on an iPad for free.

The end of that story noted the likely arrival of iPad apps supporting Office file formats. One of the most popular of these is the $15 Quickoffice, a program that was recently acquired by Google.

But before you shell out for an Office alternative, check out the free CloudOn app, which now connects to Google Drive and Box accounts as well as Dropbox accounts.

Other new features in the latest release let you send files as e-mail attachments and open PDFs. (See Lance Whitney's post on the Internet & Media blog for more on the program's PDF features.)

CloudOn's ribbon is a big departure from the Quickoffice interface, which look nothing like Office. (Of course, many people will prefer the clean, clutter-free look of Quickoffice.)

From the CloudOn home screen you sign into one of the three Web storage services, after which you're shown shortcuts to the most recent files. Press the drop-down menu at the top left to scroll through the list of files.

CloudOn file-selection screen
Select one of the three Web storage services CloudOn supports and then scroll through the files via a drop-down menu. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

When you select a file you're presented with a ribbon interface featuring familiar tabs. For example, in the word processor there are tabs for paragraph settings, styles and formatting, insert, text and symbols, page layout, references, review, and view.

CloudOn document-editing window
Files open in CloudOn's Office-like editing window, complete with a tabbed ribbon. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

You can even show paragraph and other editing marks via the Paragraph tab. This feature is particularly handy when preparing text files for export to other programs that might choke on a document's funky formatting.

CloudOn formatting options on the Paragraph tab
Select Show/Hide Editing Marks under the Paragraph tab of CloudOn's ribbon to view paragraph and other formatting marks in the document. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

Anyone who has tried to do any serious data entry on an iPad using the device's onscreen keyboard knows what a challenge it can be to plink around the nonstandard iPad key layout.

There's not much CloudOn or any other app can do to facilitate typing on an iPad (or other tablet), but CloudOn helps a bit by adding a row at the top of the iPad keyboard with Ctrl, Alt, Shift, Tab, function, arrow, Esc, and Del keys.

CloudOn's enhanced iPad keyboard
CloudOn adds a row of keys to the iPad onscreen keyboard that more closely match the standard keyboard layout. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

None of the Office extras, but all the essentials
In a group setting CloudOn's lack of support for custom add-ons, templates, auto-correct settings, and other advanced features may limit the program's usefulness. Still, the word processor lets you track and accept changes, show or hide markup, make and view comments, restrict editing, and compare and combine versions.

Similarly, the mobile versions of the spreadsheet and presentation apps provide most of the features you've come to expect in Excel and PowerPoint, respectively.

I spent less time testing the app's spreadsheet and presentation programs, but I was able to open and edit Excel and PowerPoint files in the CloudOn equivalents in XML and non-XML file types. The files reopened in their standard Office equivalents without a problem.

Most free productivity apps for the iPad bring to mind the old "dancing dog" analogy: it's not that it does it well, it's that it does it at all. CloudOn goes far beyond the basics to provide a full set of word-processing, spreadsheet, and presentation features in a familiar interface.

So what's taking Redmond so long?