With Office for iPad, Microsoft makes all mobile platforms free, but creation will cost you

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Following the release of Microsoft’s Office for iPad on Thursday, Microsoft has made its Office Mobile software for Android phones and iPhones completely free.

When Microsoft shipped Office Mobile last year, the company tied the app to Office 365, its monthly subscription to Office services. As of Thursday, however, users won’t need an Office 365 subscription to access Office Mobile documents, either for Word, Excel, or PowerPoint, a Microsoft spokeswoman confirmed. 

Now there are different levels of capabilities and effective pricing structures for each platform Office runs on. Here’s a brief breakdown:

Microsoft Office Mobile: For Android phones, Apple iPhones, and Windows Phones. It’s free, no longer requiring an Office 365 subscription; however, the app can only view and edit existing PowerPoint documents, not create them—as it can do for Word and Excel. And it means tapping on a relatively small phone.

Microsoft Office Online (formerly Office Web Apps): For PCs and mobile devices, accessible via a Web browser. It requires a free Microsoft account, as well as use of a service like OneDrive. Users can create, view, and edit documents, but with a limited feature set.

office for ipad limitations Microsoft

Using the free Office for iPad apps offer a number of capabilities, but Microsoft improves the feature set dramatically when an Office 365 subscription is added.

Microsoft Office for iPad: Office for the iPad requires an iPad, obviously. (An Android tablet version is presumably forthcoming.) Each app (Word, Excel, PowerPoint) is free of charge to view documents, such as a presentation. Users must subscribe to Office 365 to edit and create documents, which requires at least $6.99 per month for the upcoming Office 365 Personal subscription. Featurewise, Office for iPad is more robust than Office Online and less so than Office 2013.

Office 365: Home users will have to decide whether to pay $9.99 per month ($99.99 annually) for a Home Premium subscription for five PCs and five tablets, or $6.99/month for a Personal subscription that includes one PC and one tablet. (Note that Office for iPad would take up one of those tablet allowances.) Whether Office 365 or Office 2013 is a better deal is almost a personal question. Microsoft also tosses in free Skype minutes and additional OneDrive storage to sweeten the offer.

Microsoft Office 2013: For Windows (a Macintosh version is also available), in three different versions: Home & Student, Home & Business, and Professional, ranging in price from $111 or so at sites like Amazon to over $300 for the Professional version. Microsoft adds OneNote and Outlook to the basic Office package used by the iPad, tossing in Publisher and Access for the Professional version. Although each app is full-featured, each is also static, meaning that it won’t be added to and upgraded over time.

All told, Microsoft hopes you’ll select one or more of these packages, letting your data roam among devices using the power of Microsoft’s cloud. “The real goal for us is to provide applications... that power all of these users across all of these experiences,” Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella said on Thursday. You’ll just need to know which to pick.

This story was updated at 2:48 PM PT to clarify more details on Office Mobile.

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