I’ve been doing all my blogging of late on my iPad via a combination of ‘iA Writer’ and ‘Blogsy’, but for some nothing less than a full featured Word processor will do when composing a document. This is true also for other traditional computing tasks like spreadsheets and presentations.
These days, although still being considered a ‘consumption’, rather than a ‘creative’’ device, the iPad is pretty well served for office applications and several sit permanently in the top 100 apps, suggesting that most owners would like to do a bit of work in-between sessions of Angry Birds on their tablets.
Whilst Apple Pages, Numbers and Keynote ride high in the iPad’s app store, search as you might, you won’t find the world dominating office suite, Microsoft Office in the top 1000, let alone the top 100.
Despite rumors that it’s coming (I rather think they’ll keep it exclusive to their soon-to-be-released Windows 8 tablets), if you want to get serious and work in MS Word, Excel or PowerPoint, you’ll have to put the iPad aside and dust off that laptop you’ve been ignoring….or will you?
You’ll notice that the screenshot above looks an awful lot like MS Word 2010 and that’s because it’s exactly what it is. But I’m sitting here working on the iPad. How can this be?
Well, the clever folks behind the CloudOn app for iPad and Android have taken advantage of some equally clever ‘cloud’ based technologies and, so long as you have a reasonable internet connection, the CloudOn app will serve you up Word, Excel or PowerPoint for you to work on for the rather wonderful price of free!
How does this work? Well, I won’t go too deep, but basically when you log on to the service, you can select either Word, Excel or PowerPoint and then a CloudOn computer (server) will connect you to a session running that application that only you have access to. The iPad is merely the screen, the application is running at CloudOn and this is why you have to have that internet connection for it to work.
The good news is that if you have your internet connection, work it does. You might wonder if typing away at a copy of MS Office that could be running on a machine sitting hundreds of miles away would be a bad experience – in practice, it keeps up well and feels nearly as responsive as if the iPad itself were running it.
Of course Office was designed for traditional computers like desktop and laptop PCs that included full keyboards and mice and those menus and interfaces won’t necessarily translate well to a tablet. Well, I would say that using CloudOn with an external keyboard is much more appealing than the touchscreen. Touchscreen users will get by, but a Bluetooth keyboard frees up the whole screen for showing your document and this is significantly more comfortable and ergonomic.
CloudOn could perhaps have gotten away with simply providing these private sessions to Word etc. and considered it a job well done – but fortunately, they’ve put some thought in to using Office on a tablet and have added some nice touches, as well as mitigating some of the compromises.
Firstly, the iPad is famously limited at getting files on and off. The lack of connections are the big pain. Not even a USB connector to plug a memory stick into. Cloud (internet) services like Dropbox have gone a long way to alleviating this problem, particularly for small files like office documents and it’s exactly this service that CloudOn uses to access, edit and store your documents on. The great advantage of using Dropbox is, you can use this service on all your computers, for example your Windows laptop and all your documents are kept in sync! Do be careful with any documents that are for your work however. Dropbox’s Terms and Conditions are not suitable for every business or enterprise and you’d be wise to get permission from the boss before storing anything potentially commercially sensitive there.
You’re also not getting every single feature that MS Office has when installed on your PC. CloudOn have stripped it back to the functionality that most of us need on a regular basis. This is generally a good thing, as navigating all those menus and functions on the iPad may end up being more trouble than it’s worth and if you’re that kind of power user, you should probably stick to your PC for those tasks. For the rest of us, it makes using the included functions quite pleasant. The ‘ribbon’ menu works quite well considering it was designed for mouse users, rather than finger ones and key office functions like ‘Track Changes’, charts and reference tools like ‘Table of Contents’ are present and correct. This is true of PowerPoint and Excel also. I’m a power user of neither, but I manage my finances via an Excel spreadsheet and have found the most common functions are there, but power users may be disappointed.
So, is there anything not to like about CloudOn? As a free app, it feels wrong to spend too much time criticizing, but I would suggest that whilst Word translates very well to an iPad, at least for general tasks, Excel is less nice to use without a mouse and double that feeling again for PowerPoint (although dragging around clipartwith your finger works well). All are fine for edits, tweaks and reviews of existing documents, but an external keyboard is near essential for the latter two, simply because they don't lend themselves to being squeezed by the on-screen keyboard. CloudOn added some pinch and pull for zooming and getting around, which is better than if they’d done nothing and at all, but the scroll bar at the right of the screen is fiddly as are some of the sub-menus that pop after activating from the ribbon bar. Finally, whilst familiar functions like pinch and pull work in CloudOn as expected, other iPad functions like ‘tap to select’ for text are not handled in the traditional way, which can feel unintuitive. In CloudOn, tapping a word places the cursor. Pushing and holding opens a context-sensitive submenu. It took me a while to realize, but selecting a row of text is done by tapping and holding until a target sign appears then swiping across the text you want to select. It works fine, but it’s just different to other iPad apps that tend to all do these things the same way.
Those mild annoyances aside, I would urge you to give CloudOn a try. Yes, if you work on the train where an internet connection may not be guaranteed, you’re always going to need to have another option available, but otherwise, this is one of the best ways to open a document created in MS Office without losing the original formatting on the iPad. Let’s just hope Microsoft don’t turn round and tell CloudOn to stop it.