Walt Mossberg

Working in Word, Excel, PowerPoint on an iPad

Although Apple’s popular iPad tablet has been able to replace laptops for many tasks, it isn’t a big hit with folks who’d like to use it to create or edit long Microsoft Office documents.

While Microsoft has released a number of apps for the iPad, it hasn’t yet released an iPad version of Office. There are a number of valuable apps that can create or edit Office documents, such as Quickoffice Pro, Documents To Go and the iPad version of Apple’s own iWork suite. But their fidelity with Office documents created on a Windows PC or a Mac isn’t perfect.

This week, OnLive Inc., in Palo Alto, Calif., is releasing an app that brings the full, genuine Windows versions of the key Office productivity apps—Word, Excel and PowerPoint—to the iPad. And it’s free. These are the real programs. They look and work just like they do on a real Windows PC. They let you create or edit genuine Word documents, Excel spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations.

I’ve been testing a pre-release version of this new app, called OnLive Desktop, which the company says will be available in the next few days in Apple’s app store. More information is at desktop.onlive.com.


The OnLive Desktop app stores documents in a cloud-based repository.

My verdict is that it works, but with some caveats, limitations and rough edges. Some of these downsides are inherent in the product, while others have to do with the mismatch between the iPad’s touch interface and the fact that Office for Windows was primarily designed for a physical keyboard and mouse.

Creating or editing long documents on a tablet with a virtual on-screen keyboard is a chore, no matter what Office-type app you choose. So, although it isn’t a requirement, I strongly recommend that users of OnLive Desktop employ one of the many add-on wireless keyboards for the iPad.

OnLive Desktop is a cloud-based app. That means it doesn’t actually install Office on your iPad. It acts as a gateway to a remote server where Windows 7, and the three Office apps, are actually running. You create an account, sign in, and Windows pops up on your iPad, with icons allowing you to launch Word, Excel or PowerPoint. (There are also a few other, minor Windows programs included, like Notepad, Calculator and Paint.)

In my tests, the Office apps launched and worked smoothly and quickly, without any noticeable lag, despite the fact that they were operating remotely. Although this worked better for me on my fast home Internet connection, it also worked pretty well on a much slower hotel connection.

Like Office itself, the documents you create or modify don’t live on the iPad. Instead, they go to a cloud-based repository, a sort of virtual hard disk. When you sign into OnLive Desktop, you see your documents in the standard Windows documents folder, which is actually on the remote server. The company says that this document storage won’t be available until a few days after the app becomes available.

To get files into and out of OnLive Desktop, you log in to a Web site on your PC or Mac, where you see all the documents you’ve saved to your cloud repository. You can use this Web site to upload and download files to your OnLive Desktop account. Any changes made will be automatically synced, the company says, though I wasn’t able to test that capability in my pre-release version.

Because it’s a cloud-based service, OnLive Desktop won’t work offline, such as in planes without Wi-Fi. And it can be finicky about network speeds. It requires a wireless network with at least 1 megabit per second of download speed, and works best with at least 1.5 to 2.0 megabits. Many hotels have trouble delivering those speeds, and, in my tests, the app refused to start in a hotel twice, claiming insufficient network speed when the hotel Wi-Fi was overloaded.

The free version of the app has some other limitations. You get just 2 gigabytes of file storage, there’s no Web browser or email program like Outlook included, and you can’t install additional software. If many users are trying to log onto the OnLive Desktop servers at once, you may have to wait your turn to use Office.

In the coming weeks, the company plans to launch a Pro version, which will cost $10 a month. It will offer 50 GB of cloud document storage, “priority” access to the servers, a Web browser, and the ability to install some added programs. It will also allow you to collaborate on documents with other users, or even to chat with, and present material to, groups of other OnLive Desktop users.

The company also plans to offer OnLive Desktop on Android tablets, PCs and Macs, and iPhones.

In my tests, I was able to create documents on an iPad in each of the three cloud-based Office programs. I was able to download them to a computer, and alter them on both the iPad and computer. I was also able to upload files from the computer for use in OnLive Desktop.

OnLive Desktop can’t use the iPad’s built-in virtual keyboard, but it can use the virtual keyboard built into Windows 7 and Windows’ limited touch features and handwriting recognition. As noted above, I recommend using a wireless physical keyboard. But even these aren’t a perfect solution, because the ones that work with the iPad can’t send common Windows keyboard commands to OnLive Desktop, so you wind up moving between the keyboard and the touch screen, which can be frustrating. And you can’t use a mouse.

Another drawback is that OnLive Desktop is entirely isolated from the rest of the iPad. Unlike Office-compatible apps that install directly on the tablet, this cloud-based service can’t, for instance, be used to open Office documents you receive via email on the iPad. And, at least at first, the only way you can get files into and out of OnLive Desktop is through its Web-accessible cloud-storage service. The free version has no email capability, and the app doesn’t support common file-transfer services like Dropbox or SugarSync. The company says it hopes to add those.

OnLive Desktop competes not only with the iPad’s Office clones, but with iPad apps that let you remotely access and control your own PCs and Macs, and thus use Office and other computer software on those.

But, in my tests, I have found those tricky to use. They require you to leave your computers running and either install special software or learn to use certain settings.

Overall, I found OnLive Desktop to be a notable technical achievement, but it has so many caveats that it’s best for folks who absolutely, positively need to use the full, genuine versions of the three big Office productivity programs on their iPads. For everyone else, the locally installed Office clones are probably good enough, and simpler to use.

Write to Walt at walt.mossberg@wsj.com

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