For over a year now, I typically mention two apps when I discuss creating, editing and working on Microsoft Office files: Documents to Go Premium and QuickOffice Pro HD. They are good, solid tools for basic document creation and editing, but they just aren't as powerful as the real thing. There have been rumors that Microsoft was bringing Office to the iPad in the form of $10 Word, Excel, and PowerPoint apps (OneNote has been the first, and it's free), but some of us can't wait that long.
That's why I was really intrigued when I learned of the debut of two new apps, both of which provide MS Office access on your iPad. OnLive Desktop and CloudOn came out in the past two months - both are free, and both offer access to Word, Excel, and PowerPoint in a virtual environment. In other words, the Office applications aren't actually on your iPad; they exist on another computer, and you're accessing the application that computer's desktop. I thought I would run down the basic features of each app, discuss how they handle Office files, and reveal my choice for the app I might start using in place of Docs to Go or QuickOffice.
Brought to you by the folks who started the OnLive Gaming Network, the OnLive Desktop provides an actual virtual desktop in what appears to be Windows 7 environment. On your desktop you'll see a folder for your Documents, and shortcuts to Word, Excel, and PowerPoint - all Office 2010 applications.
To get started, you can open one of the apps directly, or open your Documents folder and double tap on a document to work on it. OnLive comes with a virtual keyboard that you can use - it's pretty cool, because it offers onscreen word hints as you're typing.
Another interesting feature is the handwriting application - just tap the little pen button above the ESC key, on the virtual keyboard, and you can use a stylus or your finger to enter words into your document.
Personally, I don't really like the virtual keyboard - it's just too hard to type on the iPad's screen. I would prefer to use my wireless keyboard to work on documents, so that's what I would recommend.
One thing you might notice in the images above is that you can now use Track Changes on your iPad! That's right - the Track Changes feature works in OnLive (and CloudOn below, as well) - this is, hands down, the number one requested feature of lawyers in document creation apps. This alone may be the reason that you choose to use one of these tools.
There are a few downsides to using OnLive. First, you must be connected to the internet to use it - if you're on a plane without wireless you won't be able to work on your documents. Further, if you're on a slow connection, you might experience some latency - that is, the app will work a little slower than you'd like. For me, the other objection is that you must store your documents with OnLive in order to access them - you first have to upload them to your Onlive repository on your desktop or laptop before you can work with them on the iPad. One advantage to this is that you can insert images in documents created in OnLive, because you can upload the pictures to your OnLive library; in CloudOn this feature is not available.
The OnLive app is free, as is the basic account, which comes with 2GB of storage. However, with the free account they offer you no guarantees that you will be able to get in to use the service; if demand is high, priority will be given to those with Pro accounts (further, you'll be logged off the system if you don't use it for more than 20 minutes). A Pro account costs $9.99/month, and in addition to priority access will give you 50GB of storage and the ability to add additional PC applications. The Pro service is not available yet - the site says it is coming soon.
The CloudOn app doesn't provide access to a traditional desktop. Instead, you connect directly to your Dropbox account - and when you log in, you'll be taken to the last folder you were using. Just open a document and the app that created it (Word, Excel, or PowerPoint) will automatically open.
If you want to create a new document, just press the third button at the top to select the right application.
You don't have access to all features in the MS Office applications, like you might in OnLive (including inserting images), but you really get what you need. Some of the features don't quite work right (for example, when you try to indent a numbered or lettered list, it doesn't change the sub-level number or letter), and it's pretty slow when you try to scroll around a document. But otherwise, the app works just like the version of Word or Excel you might use on your desktop or laptop.
Like OnLive, CloudOn can be slow because 1) you are using an online service that 2) is being used by other people at the same time. But for me, the best feature of CloudOn - and the feature that will make this the app I use - is its integration with Dropbox. When I open the app, I can open a document directly from my Dropbox folders. As soon as I'm done with the document, it is automatically saved back to my Dropbox folder. It can hardly get easier than that, and for me it is far preferable to using a separate online storage repository just to work on documents.
CloudOn is currently free, and there will always be a free version even if/when pricing plans are introduced.
If it wasn't clear already, I recommend CloudOn of the two products, and am already using it regularly to work on Word and Excel files when using my iPad.
Because both CloudOn and OnLive Desktop are both free, I urge you to try both of them out, and see which one works best for you. If you have any questions or issues, feel free to come back here and leave a comment so we can talk about it.