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Who Wants Microsoft Office on the iPad?

Leaping into the swirling waters of the Office-iPad debate, OnLive unleashed this week a more complete version of its virtual Windows apps offering. Called OnLive Desktop Plus, the $4.99 per month service delivers hosted desktop versions of Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Internet Explorer and Adobe Reader on the iPad.

OnLive, which has its roots in online gaming, has coupled its server-side compression and iPad-side decompression technology with a way to silence extraneous network chatter. The result is OnLive Desktop Plus with gigabit speed, and Internet Explorer running Flash and rivaling native Safari's speed.

"Experiencing a full Flash-enabled Web experience at gigabit speeds on iPad is nothing short of breathtaking," says Steve Perlman, OnLive founder and CEO.

A 50 MB file from a cloud storage service provider such as Dropbox, which OnLive Desktop Plus supports, or a 15 MB attachment from Web email will download or upload in less than a second on an iPad, OnLive claims. OnLive Desktop Plus includes 2 GB of cloud storage.

OnLive also plans to launch enterprise-class versions of its service in the near future, OnLive Desktop Pro and OnLive Enterprise.

OnLive Desktop Plus hopes to answer critics of its free version, OnLive Desktop Standard. The latter was panned by Infoworld, an IDG sister site, in a story entitled OnLive's train wreck: Office on the iPad.

"A lot of the problems raised in the article are valid," admits Perlman, adding, "but that was a free version. We've fixed those problems." The free version has as-available access to OnLive Desktop servers that renders the service spotty, whereas OnLive Desktop Plus has priority access.

Yet the main gripe concerns the lack of integration between the virtual OnLive Windows and iPad environments. File transfers between the two environments still require roundabout methods such as Dropbox and Web email. Users can't call up the iPad's virtual keyboard, instead they must use the less optimal Windows virtual keyboard.

OnLive Desktop Plus also requires a fast Internet connection. Without one, users might not be able to connect to the service or will experience lags that render the virtual Windows apps barely usable, which was the case when I tested the service (although OnLive suggests I might have a faulty router). This is one of the reasons why Perlman hopes the next iPad expected to debut March 7 will support 4G LTE.

Perhaps the biggest drawback to OnLive Desktop Plus lies in the nature of its offering: Desktop Microsoft Office wasn't designed to be used on a small touchscreen tablet.

On the flip side, iPad apps such as QuickOffice Pro HD ($20) and Documents To Go Premium ($17), as well as Apple's own iWorks suite for the iPad ($30), lack the depth and breadth of the desktop Office suite. But they are tuned for touch and screen size, run locally, and don't require an Internet connection.

This past week bore witness to a he-said-she-said encounter about Microsoft Office on the iPad. The Daily reported that someone from Microsoft gave a demo of an unannounced product, Microsoft Office for the iPad, and ran an accompanying photo.

Microsoft quickly, albeit half-heartedly, refuted The Daily's claims. "The Daily story is based on inaccurate rumors and speculation. We have no further comment," a Microsoft spokesperson told the New York Times, adding that the image did not show Microsoft software.

The Daily fired back, claiming the image is the real deal.

Nevertheless, the possibility of Microsoft tuning its prized Office for touch and running it on the iPad as an iOS app stirred the pundits into a frenzy.

Some argued that Microsoft will save Office for its upcoming Windows 8 tablet, making Office the clear differentiator as Windows 8 goes head-to-head with the iPad. The iPad is nearly two years old. Why would Microsoft put Office on the iPad now?

Microsoft also stands to gain little financially with Office apps on the iPad, according to writer Damon Brown at PC World, an IDG sister site.

Slideshow: 15 Ways iPad Goes to Work

"Microsoft Office for the PC starts at $119.99 and can cost almost $500 for use on two PCs for the Professional version," Brown writes. "The competitive pricing puts Microsoft between two uncomfortable realities: Price it more than $30 and even die-hard Office users will think twice about purchasing. However, price it below $25 and Microsoft loses more money than it would gain in expanding the Microsoft Office user base."

InfoWorld blogger Woody Leonhard counters that iPad Office is a foregone conclusion because Microsoft stands to gain financially. He admits Microsoft would have to retail iPad Office cheaply. But the big money, he says, is in corporate licenses of iPad Office in the enterprise.

So when does Leonhard expect to see iPad Office? Maybe soon, at the March unveiling of the next-generation iPad. "Can you imagine a better 'oh, and just one more thing' of Tim Cook?" Leonhard writes.

With Microsoft potentially in the mix and OnLive beefing up its hosted Office offerings, one thing is for certain: Tablet users will soon have an Office flavor that works for them.

Tom Kaneshige covers Apple and Networking for CIO.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @kaneshige. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline and on Facebook. Email Tom at tkaneshige@cio.com

Read more about office applications in CIO's Office Applications Drilldown.


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