Universal Office apps vs Desktop


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Microsoft has made yet another Office announcement … not a big announcement but an opportunity to explain the idea of Universal apps for Office and how they compare with traditional desktop apps.

The Microsoft announcement was that a preview version of Office for Windows 10 for phones will be available by the end of April.  “Hold the presses” news it ain’t.

Universal Office Apps

Firstly, the word ‘universal’ is wrong, unless the entire universe is redefined to mean Windows 10 only and only Modern/Metro apps within Window 10.   No Mac, no Android, no iOS in this ‘universe’.

The ‘universal’ nature of the apps is that the same program code can run on the entire range of Windows 10 devices.  The same program runs on a laptop with Windows 10 (aka Office Touch for Windows 10), a Windows tablet or a Windows phone.

That’s the theory.  We’ve heard promises of such ‘single code across all platforms’ before and they rarely happen as promised.  And it looks like the promise will fall short again with Office.

We say that because there’s two separate Office Universal previews.  There’s an Office Universal for tablets with the preview for phones coming soon.  If they were truly a single app then you’d expect a single preview release or, at least, a single preview that’s expanded into include phones in a later stage.

Why is Universal good for customers

The main beneficiary of common code across devices is Microsoft.  While the programming is harder, the overall development costs are lower.

Customers benefit, in theory, from consistency across the devices.  If your laptop and phone are running the same program, they should behave in the same way and have fewer document compatibility issues.

Of course, software running on a phone will have less features.  That’s partly because of the tiny screen space but also the hardware limitations.  Large and complex documents might have trouble coping with a less powerful CPU and a lot less memory.

Desktop apps

Desktop Office is the traditional Office that we’ve been using ‘forever’.  Office 2013 for Windows and its predecessors plus Office 2016 to come.  Office 2011 for Mac is also a desktop app.

Which is best?

Office desktop apps for Windows have all the features and power.  Office for Mac has most of the features of its Windows cousin but is on a very different and slower development cycle so there are differences.  The biggest difference and major hassle is Microsoft’s decision to forbid font embedding in Office for Mac.

Office Universal apps, plus the Apple and Android apps, have a limited set of features.  Limited features, but still more than enough for many people.

The interface is necessarily different for the desktop programs and the apps, however Microsoft is trying to bring some consistency between the two.  Office 2016 for Windows will have some small interface changes to do this.

Any Microsoft Office program can read/save to cloud storage (OneDrive or Dropbox).  With greater consistency between the many different versions of Office, you should be able to work on the same document from different devices.  That’s assuming you have an Internet connection and trust the security of cloud storage (assumptions that Microsoft makes but customers don’t).

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