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Rumor has it that Microsoft may be working on a version of Office for the iPad. There are already some productivity apps available – Apple’s own Pages, Numbers, and Keynote, for example, as well as Documents To Go from DataViz, among others – but these apps all are scaled-down versions, without all the functions of the original apps. Word and Pages (on the desktop) have a great way to track changes (and Pages will convert its tracking to a Word-compatable format in Word exports), for example, but you can’t do that with Pages on the iPad and it’s doesn’t appear Documents To Go supports that either). There are other examples as well the other programs (transitions, some formulas, etc). Perhaps if and when Microsoft brings out an official Office version, we’ll get some of those features.

But what if you could have all of those features today – and for free? Well, it’s possible – with a new iPad program called CloudOn. CloudOn does this by connecting to a copy of Word, Excel, or PowerPoint on their own servers and giving you an interface via your iPad. You’re actually running a copy of an Office program in Windows, so you have all the features of those programs.

When you first run the program, you’ll need to create an account with CloudOn. Then you’ll need to enter your account login for your Dropbox account. CloudOn uses Dropbox as its storage, so you’ll need to have an account. If you don’t have one, you can sign up for one in the CloudOn program (Dropbox storage is free for the first 2 GB – you can pay for more).

After that, you’ll be able to tap on files in your Dropox account (and easily navigate its folders) and open it if it’s supported by Word, Excel, or PowerPoint – mostly. While I was able to open DOC, DOCX and RTF files in Word, CloudOn would not let me open a TXT file because that type is “unsupported.” I thought that a bit odd, but I have other text editors, so that’s not really a problem.

What was a problem was my initial sign-up. Something got messed up, and it wouldn’t let me sign in to Dropbox or into CloudOn. I wound up resetting my CloudOn password and everything started working again. I put in a trouble report, and within an hour I was getting responses from CloudOn. That’s pretty good support for a free program.

Once in Word, I was able to tap and hold for a right-click, tap for a left click, double-tap to select a word, and triple-tap to select a paragraph, as you would expect in Word. You can’t use the iPad’s copy/paste or other gestures, because you’re not really running the program on your iPad. You’re running a remote copy of the Office program.  But with left and right clicks, you should be fine. After a single click to place your cursor, the keyboard will pop up, and some extra keys are added – arrow keys and function keys, like you might need with an Office for Windows program.

One thing is different – you can’t get to the file tab (I say “tab” because you will be using Office 2010 and its “tabbed” interface – which, as it turns out, works very well on the iPad). So how do you save a file? Files are saved for you automatically with each change. You also don’t close a file – after two hours of inactivity, CloudOn will close the file for you.

I did experience a couple of crashes, but because all I was running was a remote interface, my documents were fine. And importantly for me, I was able to use the Track Changes and Commenting features – two things I need in my workflow, as I proof magazine articles for others. Not having that feature on the iPad has kept me from being able to use it in place of my laptop on the road.

I did find scrolling to be a tad sluggish, but again, with nothing local, that’s not a terrible trade-off. It wasn’t so bad as to be unusable, just a bit annoying. But it’s a trade off I’ll take for getting 100% compatibility and all the features of the desktop program.

So one way or another, you can get Office on your iPad – for the moment at least. I’m not sure how CloudOn intends to earn its keep – there’s no ads that I can see, the program is free, and the storage is via Dropbox, so they can’t even charge for that. Let’s hope they stick around, and if they do start charging, it’s something reasonable.


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