Office 365 on mobile devices… consistently inconsistent


I’m currently testing Office 365 for Education as our new platform for our email and collaboration services. As some of you may know I’ve been watching and blogging about Microsoft cloud services for a few years now, watching how the service has evolved from Live@Edu to Office 365. Some parts are excellent (will cover that in another post) but today’s focus is on the “joys” of the mobile experience I’ve had so far.

Why do I care?

Having migrated my mailbox onto Office 365 I also gained SkyDrive Pro and all the associated goodies that come with the cloud platform. The natural aim for this is to replace the classic server-stored Documents share that we all know so well, on the desktop Office 2013 is well integrated and works well enough to use on a day-to-day basis to be viable with a subtle change in working patterns.

I’ve always been interested in UI design and how features are presented – initial thoughts on Windows 8 was a great case in point (and pleasing to see the improvement in 8.1 was pretty close compared to what I was hoping for). I’ve had a similar feeling trying to use Office 365 on a couple of mobile devices today, as per the title it’s all a bit random in my opinion…

Desktop browser experience

Loading up the web interface in Wave 15 Office 365 is pretty slick too, the design is very “Metro” but that’s not exactly shocking after using Windows 8 for any length of time. That said I’m not sure that users need to see the initial welcome screen all the time, I’d prefer some nice easy-to-hit live-tile esque graphics as a more practical day-to-day launch page, that could be activated via a “hide this welcome screen” button as you usually do on desktop applications after you know your way around.

Once I’ve used Office 365 a couple of times and got set up I don’t really need to see that screen every day and the links at the bottom are rather text-heavy. What I do need to see are how many unread emails I have, when my next appointment is or what’s new on SharePoint sites I’m following. Using the top space for Outlook, SkyDrive and Team Site quick navigation (ideally as live tiles) would be a lot richer experience-wise and give more of a dynamic feel to the landing page.

Once you’re past that it’s pretty much standard OWA and SharePoint, which you’ll either love or hate dependent on which side of the Microsoft \ Google fence you sit on. The SharePoint side of things (and SkyDrive Pro) had a nice lick of paint applied to it in Wave 15 but when you start delving deeper the classic interface quirks are still there so it’s (a decent amount of) evolution rather than revolution. No point adding loads of screenshots here as there’s plenty around the web or in my old Wave 15 preview post from a while back.


nice launcher for first-time users, but could do with being more functional for day-to-day use

Windows tablet experience

Sadly I’ve had to give the Surface RT back so it can be used elsewhere. I have no doubt a Windows tablet is going to give the best Office 365 experience as you’re effectively using the desktop apps so not a lot to say here really. The only thing that stands out is the lack of Metro-specific Office live tiles, which always seemed an odd omission, especially for the Surface range and Windows 8 in general when Office 2013 was released.

I haven’t got access to a Windows Phone right now so can’t comment on that either way, apart from Microsoft’s sneaky strategy around mobile apps (see Android section below)

Android experience

My main phone is an HTC One X+ so the Android feature set was of particular interest as I find the device large enough to use for meeting \ conference notes most of the time . In a similar vein we’ve just purchased a batch of Nexus 7 tablets (lovely bit of kit) which fit neatly into the ultra-mobile space, interesting to see how Office 365 works from that perspective too. So I go to Google Play and have a search for Office 365. In the results I get an Office Mobile app, OK it’s not branded Office 365 (that would be far too obvious?!) but at least comes top in the results list.

unnamed (1)App duly installed I sign in and get an error message saying I don’t have a valid subscription. I hit Google and find out that mobile apps for Android and iOS aren’t included in plan A2 for Education I find that really poor form by Microsoft and to be honest rather petty. Come on, if you’re providing a premium service like Office 365 native mobile apps should be a core feature, it’s not they’re going to be feature-equivalent to desktop Office so Microsoft making them a chargeable option is beyond me and weakens the user experience hugely on the free plan. In another twist the mobile apps are free on Windows Phone (and obviously Surface). This is the kind of stunt Microsoft could get away with 10 years ago but right now I’d say Google will be the only people happy with this policy – there’s no such restriction on GApps.

Fortunately I also have a 30-day A3 plan trial running elsewhere so have been able to test the features using that instead. On a phone the Office Mobile app is nice and clean, editing is pretty limited but good enough for quick views and changes.

I’ve seen some people knocking the Android phone app for being too basic but really you’re only going to be doing viewing and basic editing on a small device so no qualms with the feature set. I can view my personal SkyDrive Pro and create \ edit files as expected. Oddly OneNote isn’t mentioned anywhere, nor can I create OneNote files but more on that mess later.

I then went onto the Nexus 7 and tried to download the app again only to find it’s phone-only. When using the web interface of Office 365 on the Nexus (which gets fiddly on the smaller screen) there’s no edit function and no message to tell you about it either, just a basic view-only page. Very poor once again as these 7″ devices are getting more popular by the week – the Nexus especially as the build quality and price point are spot on.

I also had an Asus Transformer tablet to hand so tried 365 on that as well. Again no Office Mobile app and oddly the web version gave me a very basic OWA interface (think Exchange 2007 OWA light) in the built-in Android browser and Chrome… not sure what’s going on there. Even more bizarrely the Office 365 web interface doesn’t even acknowledge the existence of Android tablets from the Getting Started page… pretending they don’t exist won’t sell more Surfaces guys 😉


“Android tablets, never heard of them mate”

So next, OneNote. On the desktop it’s my favourite part of Office 2013 so with much enthusiasm I went to fetch the app, hoping for something I could replace the built-in Android quick notes app with and save my jottings straight up to SharePoint (SkyDrive Pro). After installation the app asks me to sign in, but wants a Microsoft account (aka Windows Live ID). That’s a bit odd as I want to use it for work and my personal account should have nothing to do with that. However I can’t get in until I provide a personal ID so I give into the app and do what it says. At that point I have to delve into the Settings menu to add Office 365 as a secondary account… seriously? Apparently so…

Even once my account was added my Notebooks still didn’t show up, in the end I gave up and went back to pen and paper for the event I was at out of frustration. The app itself is decent (although not sparkling) when used on a personal account so all it takes is either a modification to the login screen to accept Office 365 accounts or a separate version of the app integrated with the main Office Mobile one, not really that difficult but makes a huge difference to usability and needs sorting.

iPad experience

Love it or hate it the iPad has a large chunk of the consumer market so next step was to see how well Office 365 works on the forbidden fruit. For this test I was using a demo A3 plan as referenced above, now knowing my A2 account wouldn’t work for Office documents.

I still thought I’d try searching for apps despite being on a tablet as it’s likely what many users may think too, after all there’s an app for pretty much everything else out there so why not this? Searching for Office 365 in the App Store gave a rather random set of results, some apps that were from Microsoft and many that weren’t but nothing that suggested a one-stop-shop for 365 (kinda expected that after the Android experience).

Wanting to check what I should be able to get I went back to the web interface where I’m told there’s 4 separate apps I need to go and fetch, looking at the supplied list there’s apps for Lync, SharePoint, OneNote and OWA (presumably named due to naming the consumer service Outlook, confusing much?). After installing them each one requires me to sign into it (loads of fun with complex passwords and an onscreen keyboard). There’s also a SkyDrive Pro app on iTunes that isn’t mentioned on the Office 365 page, on an iPhone it isn’t really needed as you have Office Mobile and on an iPad it just bounces you off to the web version to edit files (with yet another login required!)

not work

Not sure why this screen even suggests emailing the link as it wouldn’t accept my Office 365 email address (!) and the web page link next to it is a lot quicker

However there’s nothing that suggests I can do anything with Office documents app-wise, a quick bit of research confirms that Microsoft want you to use the web apps on tablets despite producing a dedicated app on phones. Interesting mish-mash of approaches, especially if you have an iPhone and iPad and end up with a different experience on each device.

Yes OK one is physically larger than the other screen-wise but surely an equivalent Office Mobile app could be made for iPad so at least you always start with a vaguely similar interface? No app also means no offline editing, again odd as Microsoft always trumpet their hybrid model as better than Google’s “online first” one, although even they’re doing offline mode these days.

Once in the web interface you see that Microsoft have made some of the navigation more suitable for tablets. The initial impression of this was positive and looked like some thought had gone into the UI, which is specific to tablets. However the inconsistent navigation issue reared its ugly head again when trying to move between products.

After loading up your email from the welcome page you swipe up from the bottom to bring up a nice navigation menu but a graphic for SharePoint Sites is nowhere to be found… until you hit the (relatively) tiny text-based menu at the bottom et voila. Once in SharePoint you do the same again but get a variation of the same menu but this time with more items and you can go easily back to OWA. Again it’s attention to detail that makes the difference between a fluid user experience and a frustrating one.

unnamed (1)    unnamed (3)

OWA web interface for iOS (left) and SharePoint (right) – take the live tiles from the left, extra graphics from the right et voila problem solved!

Using the web apps themselves was reasonably pain-free although it feels like the browser (address bar, navigation buttons, tabs etc) is getting in the way. I’d prefer to launch the Office 365 web interface via a dedicated app with its own optimised rendering engine so the interface runs full-screen with nothing distracting from the important stuff i.e. the content. It looks like the OWA app does something along those lines as the design is very similar to the web interface but also adds push notifications so more of the same would be ideal.

That fits in nicely with the idea above of a generic Office 365 app for all devices, not just phones and most importantly only needing one login for all Office 365 applications. If the apps could run offline within said app that would be even better, then we have something much more useful on our hands.

To finish up I loaded up OneNote again, this time with very low expectations after the Android debacle. The iPad version of the app looked a lot better but still had the same forced Microsoft account nonsense on sign-in. Once I’d jumped through the required hoops to add my 365 account I then had to manually find and open my Notebooks as the app didn’t find them. Finally once that was done I could actually look around the app and you know what, it looks quite nice!

OneNote - iOS

if OneNote can do it why can’t we have an Office app with a similar interface?

Overall thoughts

Unrealised potential is probably the best way to describe the mobile experience at present. There’s so many good features in Office 365 that would make it a top notch product if Microsoft were to take the time and effort to create a consistent model for accessing their online services.

It feels like the mobile apps have been designed either by different teams that don’t have an overall design direction or maybe they’ve been outsourced as there’s something missing to tie everything together under the Office 365 brand. Microsoft also need to remove the stupid restriction on iOS and Android apps pronto that’s a real own goal at the moment in my opinion.

The other potential problem is that you can mix and match Office 365 plans so much that I can see why it’s hard for Microsoft to make one app to cover all the possible permutations of what you can sign up for. That said SkyDrive Pro is there in pretty much everything, as is SharePoint and OneNote. Therefore in theory those could be tied together and then bounce off to the OWA and Lync apps from within the main launcher so users can grab them quickly and easily.

Although some of its functionality hasn’t got the greatest reviews on the Play Store Google’s QuickOffice seems to have the right idea at least…


yup it’s definitely Quick, two taps and you’re away, Office 365 functionality with a simple interface on mobile devices would be spot on…

Fingers crossed some of this stuff is already being worked on as it’s similar to how the previous iteration of the Office 365 website was in terms of usability barriers, many of which were solved with Wave 15. Let’s hope for something similar for iOS \ Android users (or some sort of pricing miracle on mid-range Windows 8 Pro tablets).

Have you been using Office 365 on a mobile device? Would like to hear your thoughts on your experiences so far, hit the comment button below…


One Response to Office 365 on mobile devices… consistently inconsistent

  1. Pingback: Office 365 & Windows 8 summer wishlist | gshaw0

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