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Microsoft brings Office to iPhones but limits its use

The software giant released Office Mobile for iPhone today but is only making it available to subscribers of its Office 365 service.

Microsoft released Office Mobile for iPhone today, an app that lets Office 365 subscribers use Word, Excel, and PowerPoint on their iPhones.
James Martin/CNET

Microsoft inched a bit closer today to bringing the one app to the iPhone that's long been missing: Office.

The software giant on Friday released Office Mobile for iPhone in the iTunes Store. But don't get too excited, Office fans. While it's a free download, Office Mobile for iPhone will only work for subscribers to Microsoft's Office 365 Home Premium and ProPlus service. And it's optimized for the iPhone, not Apple's larger iPads.

"We don't view this as a standalone app," said Chris Schneider, a marketing manager in Microsoft's Office division.

Indeed, while rumors of Office coming to iOS have heated up over the last few years, this release will have particularly limited appeal for the more than 350 million users of iPhones worldwide. That's because, as Microsoft noted last month, Office 365 has 1 million subscribers. The new app, by the way, is officially dubbed "Office Mobile for Office 365 subscribers" in the iTunes Store, but Microsoft is referring to it in press materials as Office Mobile for iPhone.

Microsoft has tried to leverage the widely used Office, which is preinstalled on mobile phones running its Windows Phone operating system, to eke out market share in the smartphone business that's dominated by devices running iOS and Google's Android mobile operating system. In the first quarter, Windows Phone accounted for just 3.2 percent of the worldwide smartphone operating system market share, compared with 17.3 percent for iOS and 75 percent for Android, according to IDC.

So rather than give up that leverage, Microsoft is limiting the potential market for Office on iOS, while using the platform's popularity to help boost Office 365. That service costs $100 a year, and offers subscribers the ability to install Office apps on up to five devices such as PCs, Macs, tablets, and smartphones.

Office Mobile for iPhone "really points to rounding out that device experience," Microsoft's Schneider said.

What's more, because the app is offered for free, Apple receives no royalty when iPhone users download it, a Microsoft spokeswoman said. The app, which is being offered today in the United States only, will roll out internationally next week.

Office Mobile for iPhone includes access to Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. The programs aren't meant for document, spreadsheet, and presentation creation. Rather, they are aimed at helping Office users make quick fixes to existing work, and share those files. The files, like all Office 365 documents, will sync with Microsoft's SkyDrive Web storage service. Users won't be able to store files using the app on Apple's iCloud service.

The app includes several features to let Office 365 subscribers pick up files on their phones where they left off on their PCs. The Resume Reading feature, for example, takes users to the exact point in the document last viewed in Word on a PC. Tapping on the "Recent" button on the bottom of the app's home page will take users to a list of the Word, Excel, and PowerPoint apps they most recently worked on from their PC, tablet, or phone.

While Microsoft is pitching the new app as one that brings more value to Office 365 customers, it did not design the app to work with iPads. That would have required making it work on a larger screen.

"We don't think it will be optimal for that experience," Schneider said.

And Microsoft is not currently offering an Android version of the app.

Instead, Microsoft is encouraging iPad users, and Android ones as well, to tap into its Office Web Apps services, which offer the various Office programs through a Web browser.