Oh My Tech!: Office for iPad is out and the pricing stinks

By Vince Horiuchi

The Salt Lake Tribune

Published: April 3, 2014 11:39AM
Updated: April 3, 2014 11:39AM
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Eric Risberg | The Associated Press Microsoft General Manager Julia White talks about the Office 365 app during a press briefing Thursday in San Francisco.

After a long four-year wait, Microsoft finally released the one group of apps that everyone wanted for their iPad — the Office 365 suite.

The ultimate trifecta of productivity software, Word, the spreadsheet Excel, and PowerPoint, is now available for Apple’s mobile device — sorry, not the iPhone — and ports over all of the features of the original desktop versions.

Yet it’s not just a mere copy of those desktop versions. Office 365 for iPad also was designed to be used specifically for touchscreens.

But the release was bittersweet. While Microsoft now offers Office for devices on the go, it also is offering it to us with expensive strings attached. In order to have the full functionality of these apps, you have to buy a subscription that can run up to $100 per year. What you won’t be able to do is buy the applications outright.

That’s because in today’s world of software development, you no longer own a program when you pay for it, you instead own the right to use it, and that reeks of greed. It breaks my heart that software publishers continue to go down this road in which its software can only be borrowed for a price rather than allowing users to purchase it.

I haven’t had a lot of time with Office 365 for iPad since it was released more than a week ago, so don’t consider this a review, but so far I’ve found it to be the worthy version that everyone has been waiting for. It can do some things in editing that Apple’s word processor, Pages, can’t, and most importantly, Office for iPad is fully compatible with its desktop versions. You no longer have to compose a document or presentation on your desktop computer and worry about whether it will be formatted correctly when you copy it over to your iPad.

For a piece of software like that, I and others would be willing to pay a lot of money — say, up to $30 for each application — to have a fully functional copy of Word, Excel or PowerPoint for mobile devices. Instead, here is how “buying” Office 365 for iPad works: You can download each app for free. The free versions only allow you to view documents, but you can’t edit them, similar to Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.

If you want to have fully functioning versions of those apps to create and edit documents, you have to buy an Office 365 subscription. A subscription is $9.99 per month or $99.99 per year. That allows you to download and use up to five desktop copies and five mobile copies. The best deal is for students, however, which is $79.99 for a four-year subscription that allows you to download two desktop and two mobile copies. All you need is verification that you are a student or faculty member.

For the desktop versions, you can still buy a single copy of Office 365 for as low as $139 that you own outright. But there is no such offer for the mobile versions. Compare that to Apple’s productivity software, Pages, Numbers and Keynote, which used to cost $5 each and now are free with any new iPad or iPhone. Meanwhile, other productivity software like Google Docs or Open Office are free and have nearly all the bells and whistles of Microsoft’s Office.

What you lose with a subscription model is the ability to buy software and own it, therefore having the freedom to install it on as many machines at home as you want. By purchasing it up front, you also don’t have to worry about paying for yet another monthly fee which we already are deluged with from the cable bill to music services like Spotify.

But what’s called “software as a service,” this notion that you’re not buying into a product you own but a service you subscribe to, has become a popular form of selling software, much like the “freemium” model for mobile games.

With freemium games, you download the game for free, but you are charged every time you buy a powerup or in-game money to advance your progress. It’s a disgusting model that has taken over mobile apps.

More often than not, it ends up being more expensive for the user to keep paying for in-app purchases rather than if that person just bought the whole game outright, but that option is never available under the freemium model. I heard of one case where a technology writer paid more than $400 while playing “Candy Crush.”

With streaming movies becoming more popular, your option to own a movie on Blu-ray or DVD could one day end. Instead of buying a disc you physically own, you buy a license to play the movie. But with that model, you won’t have the freedom to take the movie over to a friend’s house or loan it to a family member or make a copy of it for your own use.

I agree that software developers have the right to make money for their hard work. They spend months if not years developing software that we can use for work and play. But there’s a point where software publishers take advantage of users and try to squeeze as much money out of consumers as possible. Office 365 is just one new example of that horrible trend.

If you have a tech question for Vince, email him at ohmytech@sltrib.com, and he’ll try to answer it for his column in The Salt Lake Tribune or on its website. For an archive of past columns, go to www.sltrib.com/Topics/ohmytech.