Why Microsoft's Office Mobile suite is much more than a simple set of mobile apps

Microsoft's set of Office Mobile apps are great. I prefer them over the full Office suite. I realize that a lot of people find the Office Mobile apps to be subpar. But there are people out there for whom the Office Mobile apps are more than fine. Wo why isn't Microsoft doing anything with them?

You might not even know that Microsoft built Universal Windows Platform (UWP) versions of Word, PowerPoint, and Excel. That's because Microsoft doesn't even list them in the Microsoft Store. They're invisible unless you know what you're searching for. Why? Because Microsoft is still pushing the full, Win32 Office suite that's much more powerful and capable (and expensive). So what's the point of the Office Mobile apps? They're for mobile devices ... or they were.

They were built for Windows 10 Mobile handsets, but as we all know Windows 10 Mobile isn't a thing anymore. Not really. So does that mean Office Mobile is dead too? I certainly hope not. Although the Office Mobile apps aren't as powerful as the full Office suite, these are still incredibly capable and useful apps for casual Office users like myself. So, it's time Microsoft started repositioning these apps, re-add them to the Store, and start pushing them.

Office Mobile works everywhere

Office Mobile apps are the only versions of Word, PowerPoint, OneNote, and Excel that work on Microsoft's new Windows Mixed Reality platform. They also work on all Windows 10 devices. So already, these apps are vital in environments that aren't strictly mobile. I don't think rebranding the Office Mobile apps as "Office Mixed Reality" is a good idea, as that narrows the scope of these apps a little too much. But I think Microsoft should reposition these apps as free Office Online alternatives.

Office Online is already technically a free version of Office, and the Office Mobile apps aren't that much more advanced when it comes to functionality. I find it bewildering how Microsoft expects people to pay for an Office 365 subscription to use the Office Mobile apps anyway, especially considering an Office subscription only advertises the full version of Office. It should make Office Mobile free and rebrand this set of apps as "Office Lite" or even "Office Online."

If making them free is too much of a loss for Microsoft, it could still take a slightly different approach. Rebrand these apps as Office Lite or Office Online, but bundle them with every install of Windows 10. This way, they're front and center on all devices, and if the user wants the full version of Office, they can upgrade through any of the UWP Office apps. This would also give Windows 10 inbox support for office file formats.

If you don't have an Office subscription, these apps act merely as Office file viewers; the subscription enables the editing capabilities. Calling these apps Office Mobile is confusing, and more importantly, unfair. I use the Office "Mobile" apps on my desktop and laptop far more than I did on my Windows phone. Rebranding them as something more generic, yet still maintaining that "less than full" aspect is something Microsoft needs to do.

Windows apps

Windows apps (Image credit: Windows Central)

I understand that these apps are not as powerful or as capable as the full version of Office. I'm arguing that Microsoft should take advantage of a lite, simpler version of Office. This is something that it has built, and I know for a fact there are people out there where these apps are more than fine for their workload. I have friends and family members who would prefer these apps over the full, clunky versions of Office.

They eat fewer resources, too, which is especially helpful on low-end, cheap laptops and tablets. These Office Mobile apps are beneficial in more ways than one, so why Microsoft continues to hide these apps from the Windows Store and keep them labeled as "Mobile" is beyond me. Hopefully, Microsoft sees sense and starts taking advantage of these apps sooner rather than later.

Your thoughts

What are your thoughts on the Office Mobile apps? Should Microsoft rebrand them and reposition them as something more than just mobile apps, or should Microsoft keep these buried and continue to push the full versions of Office instead? We want to know, so let us know in the comments.

Zac Bowden
Senior Editor

Zac Bowden is a Senior Editor at Windows Central. Bringing you exclusive coverage into the world of Windows on PCs, tablets, phones, and more. Also an avid collector of rare Microsoft prototype devices! Keep in touch on Twitter: @zacbowden.

  • Same here i use them rather than full desktop version. Must be hard for Microsoft to know exactly what to do. I mean my office 365 expires in February I'm not sure if i will renew. There are plenty free yet capable options out there. They have to make a profit somehow.
  • Nope. You need a 365 pass to access the most important features, like editing docs, using templates.... Just pay the $10.. Lol
  • Editing and document creation is not free for devices above 9 inches or more. My fam uses the free office apps on their phones, you just need a outlook.com account. However advanced features require a sub.
  • If you do decide to renew your subscription, check out Amazon.  When my subscription ended, it was cheaper to extend it through Amazon rather than MS, and no sooner had I done that, Amazon had a sale on the MSO365, so I purchased another year.  So within 1 month, I purchased two x1 year subscriptions.   I bought it mainly for my OneDrive storage. I had an old version of MS Office (2003), which was starting to show its age with the X format. I just use MS Word for some light word processing, nothing extreme, even Office 2003 would suffice for my needs. 
  • They are more responsive than the full suite, but they are EXTREMELY light. No editing Styles, no hotkeys, no equation editor, just to name a few missing features.
  • Editing styles is actually there on Win 10 Mobile, but not on iOS/Android... it was actually added a while ago and there were articles on it.  When editing text you simply highlight the text, click the ... menu, and you can select the Font ribbon.  You can also insert tables, edit tables, etc.  This is definitely one of the things I'm missing on Android.
  • All the mobile apps, but onenote ARE subpar compared to full office clients.
  • No thanks. I will stick to the full desktop version.
  • i use OneNote everyday on my 950xl. It's missing a couple of features related to direct blog publishing that I'm assuming is in the "full" version. If that were a feature of the uwp app I'd be all set. I only own winmo devices, no desktops, so giving these apps a fresh do over would be great! 
  • Same, I use UWP OneNote very regularly both on my 950 and on my PC. It's the perfect low-key modern Notepad. That said though, if it were part of the 365 subscription requirement, I doubt I'd have given it a chance.
  • "This is something that it has built, and I know for a fact there are people out there where these apps are more than fine for their workload. I have friends and family members who would prefer these apps over the full, clunky versions of Office." This is exactly why they don't want to make office mobile free.
    I do think in the relatively near future that they'll have to go with a different business model so i definitely understand the sentiments of this article and the line of thinking that led up to it's creation.
  • They should make these free apps or, at the very least, sell them on the cheap (like $5 per app). For the people who rarely need one of these apps and need them for super basic things, the cost of Office far outweighs the benefit. With O365 Personal being $70/year and Office 2016 being $150, it's terrible pricing for someone who just needs to occasionally write a letter to their kid's teacher or put together a super simple spreadsheet. 
  • I don't think the expectation is for anyone to use them as their primary Office apps, but they're more than sufficient for viewing and light editing on a secondary device. And I think that's exactly the point. They want to gently nudge you to buying O365. And to be clear, it's a great value. Yes, O365 Personal is $70/year, but you can also get it for $7/month. If you really just need it once in a while, then activate a 1-month subscription and turn it off for the next 6 months. You don't even have to uninstall the apps - they just drop back to viewer mode until you reactivate them. When you look at it that way, you might be able to use Office as needed for around $20/year.
  • No one will get an Office 365 subscription for these apps, and those who have a subscription more likely use full Office. The best option is to rename and offer them for free - this way they can get more users and feedback to improve them.
  • Why haven't they replaced legacy Office yet? It has been several years. By now they should be able to transform from full desktop apps to mobile when pull your Windows phone out of the dock. Microsoft wonders why their platforms flop. They put no effort into actually making them good. They do the bare minimum and just expect success because they are Microsoft.
  • I agree. Zak has it completely backwards here. The UWP apps should NOT be the "lite" version of Office. They should be the ONLY locally installed version of Office that anyone ever needs on Windows. The existing full/Win32 Office software we've used so far should be in maintanence mode, with a frozen feature set, necessary only for those that can't run UWP software because they can't or don't want to upgrade to Windows 10. If MS knew what they were doing, the unlicensed UWP apps would come pre-installed on every Windows device. They'd occupy a middle ground between the iOS, Android and Online versions, and the fully licensed version of Office An in-app purchase would unlock the full feature set on a monthly or yearly basis. A perpetual license for those who don't want subscriptions must also remain an option.
  • UWP be the "current" development pathway? That's not where Office users want to go. The vast majority of Office users (which make Microsoft serious money) are on corporate plans, and, those users are no fan of Windows 10. They've got a job to do and Windows 10 native apps are not designed for productivity. Windows 10 native apps are designed and meant to compete with the bling of iOS! My experience with the vast majority of Windows 10 native apps (UWP) is that they are poorly designed and not easy to use. Microsoft failed to understand that the Windows 8 touch experiment should've stayed an experiment. The future of desktop computing is not some hybrid touch-desktop model. Windows 10 really shines when it runs Windows 7 (i.e. desktop) applications. Windows 10 is well designed to run desktop apps and run them well. It's terrible at running Windows 10-native apps. Also, the way Microsoft has marketed UWP they've made it crystal clear that Windows 10 S, the UWP version of Windows 10, is the poor cousin of the desktop version. You can upgrade from Windows 10 S to Windows 10 Pro. Having to pay to upgrade implies that Windows 10 Pro is better. Premium machines invariably come with Windows 10 Pro. Aside from Microsoft, only the cheapest of laptops are expected to run Windows 10 S. Plus, Microsoft has also turned Windows 10 S into a mobile operating system--it can only run Edge and only Edge may be the default browser and (in an act of anti-competitive behaviour no other manufacturer has ever dared) only Bing may ever be the default search engine. Windows 10 S is a response to the run-away success of iOS. Granted, iOS is the operating system to beat, but, Microsoft isn't going to reclaim its lost OS dominance by sacrificing its lead in the desktop OS by making its desktop OS a mobile OS. For my purposes, Windows 10 Pro works beautifully. Two years after its release Windows 10 UWP is still non-functional. If Microsoft ever went UWP-only I'd likely have to jump ship and go to a Mac desktop. Apple has wisely resisted the temptation to iOSify macOS. Of course, they don't have to since they're the ones in charge of iOS ;).
  • "Microsoft wonders why their platforms flop. They put no effort into actually making them good. They do the bare minimum and just expect success because they are Microsoft." While I am no fan of Microsoft's experiments they do make sense, and, Microsoft does devote considerable resources to its projects, keeping them alive a lot longer than competitors. Windows Mobile/Phone was dead over half a decade ago but it took until this year for Microsoft to finally pull the plug. That's a long time to be the butt of jokes (terrible for marketing purposes) and to have to devote R&D to a project on life support. Windows 8's interface was a flop. It was designed to be a desktop-touch hybrid in an era where touch screens were a rarity. It also didn't make sense on a desktop UX/UI. Metro simply was a mistake. There was no value in doubling down on a mistake, and, to a limited extent Windows 10 acknowledges that. Windows RT was Microsoft's Windows 8-based response to the iPad. In theory a good idea, but, in practice it missed the mark and a market. Users of traditional (i.e. desktop) software needed a keyboard-and-mouse paradigm that RT did not offer. Windows 8 was also nowhere near as usable on touch as was the iPad of the day. So, it was a poor desktop and a poor tablet. As a hybrid, it was no doubt the best available, but, there's no huge latent demand for hybrids. Microsoft pulled the plug on a bad project so it could focus on Windows 10 and OEMs could standardize on one platform (i.e. Intel). Look at other projects. Edge is terrible. They've sunk considerable resources keeping it on life support. Same can be said for Internet Explorer.
  • Because Office has been around for decades, and to bring decades worth of features and code to a new app takes time.  The majority of the most common features are there though, but in reality, they cannot replace it until it's 100% on par.  That's why they are still continuing to update it while also not waiting around with the desktop versions.
  • Google Docs is a threat.  Microsoft should ensure an online/mobile version works everywhere.  I know a lot of people who work in the enterprise but have other relationships with consumers.  Wouldn't it be nice if they could work with/view office documents that their consumer relationships can view/edit from their Mac, Android, iPhone? For instance, in planning a trip between two family groups, we have to make a calendar, make notes, plan stuff.  I like OneNote, but I can never get others to start using the program.  Mostly because some don't have the app on their phone/PC/tablet.  Everyone wants to use google docs.  
  • Rooms was the gateway but they demolished it in favour of group me. Rooms did everything but it relied on the windows live messenger back end. However that also meant you could sign in with your .net custom passport account / email / domain.
  • The web-version of onenote just works fine.
  • I actually find Office Online and Office Mobile apps way superior to Google's.  The compatibility and limited functionality in Google is a big issue, and I've seen my companies (including my past employer) suffer greatly after switching to Google Docs, and then later deciding to switch back to Office 365.  They definitely bring more value and support and data protection than Google does.  But a lot of companies sadly just look at the $ amounts instead of the long run.
  • Well I dare to disagree a little - I think MS should grow these apps to be as powerfull as their .exe counterparts. Because UWP, that's why. MS should become proud of UWP again and prove it. The thing that is said in this article is the reason why UWP are not much a thing - because if You need a serious app, You almost never look into the Store. There are a few exceptions and Office should be a great example of a powerfull UWP app that manages to run perfectly on everything. So that the first thing people see is the Store contains powerfull apps for everyday use. They should really stop all that out-of-the-Store thinking by bringing real and great apps. Literally nothing from MS should come outside of the Store and as much as possible should be an UWP app. If UWP is the future, prove it! If Windows is the future, stand your ground MS and fight!
  • You mean something like Apple telling everyone to suck an egg and get used to usb-c ports on their MacBook pro?
  • @isaac TB3/USB-C is the future. Apple did it today, everyone else WILL do the same 2 years from now.  You can't move forward if you are always looking back waiting for that one person to catch up.... Apple is brave enough to say catch up or get left behind. Don't hate because you don't want progress. 
  • I believe this is what they are doing.  The Office apps still get continously updated despite W10M being dead.  Mainly because UWP is still the future.  They need Office UWP apps for Xbox, HoloLens, future mobile devices, and other new form factors.   They are ahead in features compared to the iOS/Android counterparts (for example, Outlook on Android only just got scheduling and editing/adding contacts, but it's still not as great as W10M version... and they still don't have font and table editing while UWP does).  They are also still updating the desktop apps because they need to keep ahead of the competition (which they're already way ahead and they need to stay that way).  But they also cannot replace the desktop versions with the UWP versions until they 100% feature complete.  That's why they are continuing to building both apps at the same time until the UWP apps are fully on par with the desktop apps.  That's why Office 2019 is not the UWP apps yet, but since it's catching up, the version after might be!  It also depends on the UWP engineering teams to continue optimimizing UWP to stay optimized and fast while adding more features and APIs.  Here's hoping! :)
  • Zac, please add that for a device with screen size of 10.1 in or smaller, the Office mobile is free to use. You can edit the document with the same functionality with your Lumia devices. This is very great value for tablets like Chuwi Hi 10pro.
  • I'm with you, Zac. These apps are modern, fresh, svelte, and easier to navigate than their classic Win32 counterparts. If it were possible, I'd replace every single one of the Office desktop applications with their modern counterparts. It always turns out there are a few little gotchas that aren't available on the modern apps that I absolutely need. For Excel, it's multi-document interface (MDI) support. I spend a lot of time in that program copying information between worksheets, and being expected to close-open-close-open each file is just untenable. In Word, strangely enough, it's being able to keep a paragraph with the next one as well as being able to easily adjust spacing between bullet list items. PowerPoint mobile doesn't support animation well enough for my needs. By the way, none of these are difficult to implement in the mobile app UI; they just need to take the time to improve the parity between the versions.
  • 'Although the Office Mobile apps aren't as powerful as the full Office suite...' I think the answer is 'origami' styled apps that run from a watch to a big desktop, exposing more features according to screen estate and system resources. So on the tiny watch screen it might just be a tile that tells you how many (Outlook) emails you've had, opening up to Outlook as we know it. It fits well with tiles which otherwise are ugly big graphics which convey nothing right up to full blown apps.  Maybe we call these 'progressive Windows apps' (PWAs)?  
  • Your agrument makes perfect sense, so we can safely assume that Microsoft will do the exact opposite and kill the apps. That isnt even me being sarcastic, that is me looking at recent events and assuming the most probable outcome.
  • Seems to me there are two separate issues here - the first is Microsoft's nuturing of UWP, which I agree it should be doing with more gusto, but the second is the trickier issue of competitive positioning for Office. If the Office mobile apps are all you need then the chances are Google's online tools will also be ok. But both sets of tools are pretty underpowered, and I'd guess that MSFT wants the stronger positioning against the business version of Google's tools that yes, you'll pay more, but you'll get something that's so much better (and it is). Trouble is it seems to me that all the development of the 365 apps in recent years has been driven by the need to compete with Google, with a focus on collaborative working, but if you don't need that kind of real time interaction then the tools have become far too clunky. The result is if you're working essentially on your own there are far better options than anything from Microsoft or Google. There's LibreOffice of course, but my preference is for Softmaker Office, which has always been lighter on its feet, and which in the forthcoming 2018 edition (currently available for free in public beta) offers the kind of modern UI flexibility that MSFT has mostly abandoned, though I've never understood why they did so. 
  • I used to use office on mobile but for at least 6 months now it says is locked even though I have my work O365 account added. I am not going to buy another subscription just for that. Pointless having all these apps if they can't be used.
  • I use the UWP versions all the time. Would happily pay a smaller o365 subscription fee just for these
  • For my personal budget in Excel, I use Excel Mobile on my Surface Book because full Excel would corrupt my file when syncing to OneDrive through the nightmare known as Office Uploader. Excel Mobile saves on the fly and it is so smooth and easy. 
  • From their perspective, they charge for those apps when used on big screens for iOS and Android, definetely a lot of people pay, so why change something that works for them?
  • Well it's good that MS is still interested in Office because in a couple of years, with the way Satya is running the company MS will become a company that just makes an Office suite.
  • I agree completely and there's another problem, I bought the classic version of Office (Home and Student) for 1 PC and they didn't even bundle a license for the mobile apps!! The only way to have the mobile apps is to get a 365 subscription which I don't want. These apps deserve more attention.
  • You're definitely better off getting the O365 subcription.  It's way more value and costs less than upgrading each standalone version, plus you get all the new feature updates as they come and you get 1TB of additional OneDrive space.  I love my O365 home subscription and wouldnt go back.
  • I couldn’t agree more. Only use the “mobile” apps myself
  • Is there anyway to not have excel mobile automatically save the file? That's the one thing that's stopping me from using it.
  • Yes, there is a toggle for auto saving either under settings or prominently displayed under save as.
  • In case you weren't aware, anything over 9-10 inches requires the license to use office, these apps are available EVERYWHERE, but mainly for devices smaller than 9 in, so your iPad pro 9"on down the tablet and phone line...duh. Even the free mobile apps must be paid for on large screens that's been the mo day one.😑
  • You can already use office mobile apps for free on ios and android smartphones to create and do the basics, you just need a outlook.com account. Advanced features require a subscription. My family uses them on their devices, however the android and ios versions are much more refined and polished compared to the WM10 apps. I use them for my lecture notes and assignments.
  • Two issues keep me away, at least on my PC, the single incidence limitation of UWP (but that is true on any mobile system too) and nerfed functions such as no equation editor or print area designation in Excel. Too bad, because they fly on the Surface3.
  • Did you mean single instance?  OneNote opens multiple windows to look at different notebooks or pages at the same time so I clearly UWP isn't limited that way, they just need to support it in the app.
  • Very few apps support tabs or multiple Windows...very very few.
  • Always thought the same.
  • "Wo why isn't Microsoft doing anything with them?" Proofread much?
  • Subscription version should be named Word 365, Excel 365 etc. The "mobile" apps should just be called Word, Excel, OneNote....
  • Once again I think exactly like Zac. I can already foresee Nadella's next book "Hit Escape"
  • I think Microsoft needs to add more features to Mobile Office apps. People do not care whether an app is UWP or exe as long it fulfils all their needs and MS Office is mainly used in offices which require many advanced features like pivot table and macros.
  • I use both the UWP apps and the full desktop apps (on phone, Surface and desktop).  I think they just need more time to expand the functionality of the UWP versions and also more time for all the Windows 7 systems that Office still needs to support to pack up and be replaced with new PC's that can run UWP apps.  But you can't develop big apps overnight so they need to be working on them well in advance.
  • I only use the full version (Office 365 account)
  • I agree with this article and would suggest they handle it the same way they do OneDrive with offers (that can be turned off) to upgrade.  They should keep this version of Office around for the Windows 10 ARM (where battery life is a big factor) and for Andromida / CSHELL where mobile devices will start to make since again (hopefully).
  • Also, OneDrive lets you create new Office documents and edit them online for free.
  • I totally agree with this article. I always use it on my Windows Phone and it is really great. Word Mobile is better than any other note taker. 
  • First rebranding is low priority. People who use office should know limitation of the desktop or mobile version.  Even a 10 year old wont be able to differenciate the two.  Sure MS need to rebrand it but isnt that confuses further. example xbox one vs xbox one x.  XboxX simply for gamer and not for casual gamer.  i am surprised that some tech blogger still saying xbox X is expensive. Duh.. its not for the casual.
  • Anything but "Mixed Reality".
  • I gave up on the limited functionality of Office Mobile. Now just use Office Online / OneDrive for all of my Word / Excel / PowerPoint / OneNote needs when I'm away from my office (where I have full access to Office 2016).
  • Holy crap, FINALLY somebody that thinks the same way about the Office Mobile apps! Totally agree with your stance on this. o u o
  • I have to say that following some frusrations with windows 10 on my Lumia 950 it is now running brilliantly including the Office apps which I use on the mobile and 10" windows tablet.  I prefer the full desktop versions on the laptop.  Having read the gloom on here I plucked up courage to see how much Lumia 950's were being thrown away for on ebay.  To my astonishment there is keen demand for both versions and indeed the dock which I think could have developed into a brilliant idea as the world goes mobile with grunt.  The problem with Microsoft is management speak - everyone must support the latest agreed script however ill judged it is and noone can even acknowledge past success subsequently abandoned.  If it doesn't want the mobile OS put it out to open source and let the enthusiasts develop it for producers. 
  • I don't think they need a rebrand.  I think they will simply name them the same as they do on mobile:  "Word", "Excel", etc.  because if you look at the OneNote UWP app it's simply called "OneNote" not "OneNote Mobile".  I believe the long-term vision is to have the UWP apps replace the desktop counterparts, but only after they are fully feature complete.  Since it's decades worth of features/code, it'll take a while, so it definitely won't happen for Office 2019, but maybe the version after since most of the most-used features are already there and now they're adding the rest of the features in parallel with the desktop apps so they remain ahead of the competition.
  • I love the office mobile apps, specially on my surface, when you need to do some light and/or fast tasks are the best... I think they should be called something like "light" or "touch" instead "mobile"