Microsoft Office on Your iPad? You Can With CloudOn

CloudOn is a revolutionary way of working with fully-featured applications without having to install anything except for a small viewer app on your iPad. It works by using a virtual working environment — a Workspace — which links to one of several cloud-based storage providers, so none of your personal work is stored anywhere on CloudOn‘s infrastructure. You get to use your favourite cloud storage provider with all of their security protection, backup provision and so on whilst still working with industry-standard Microsoft Office 2010 and Adobe Reader, and all that right on your iPad.

That’s a pretty decent offering for a free application. Let’s take a closer look to see if it’s usable and practical working with this solution on the iPad’s tablet environment.

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Getting Started

It goes without saying that CloudOn, being a cloud-based solution, is going to need a connection to the Internet at all times. I am pleased to report that even a 3G connection gave acceptable results. Since the copy of Microsoft Word or Adobe Reader that you use on your iPad isn’t strictly there, setting up the CloudOn app is very quick. A quick load of the local viewer app and a new account setup later, you can sign in to your storage provider and begin creating new Office documents straight away.

Getting started with CloudOn is very quick and easy.

Getting started with CloudOn is very quick and easy.

Should your Internet connection drop out then don’t panic! When an Internet connection becomes available again, CloudOn reconnects automatically and presents you with the main Workspace based on your last cloud provider. You can, of course, link your Dropbox, Box, Skydrive and Google Drive accounts up to the app.

There is a 7-step tour that’s worth skipping through quickly, and there are more video tutorials available from the main support site.

Not Quite All There

Whilst it’s true to say that you are working with a fully-fledged version of the Microsoft Office 2010 applications, there have been some limitations imposed on CloudOn. Straight away, I noticed that the replace text as you type setting for Word is not switched on, so typing =lorem() into a Word document does not provide the expected paragraph of Lorem ipsum text as you would expect. Not surprisingly, all macro and VBA functionality has been removed and locked down, so unfortunately you aren’t going to be running complex macros in your spreadsheets or merging documents with various source files using CloudOn.

This setup is purely designed to give you the most popular editing and reviewing tools for quick access — perhaps to tweak something on the move when you just need to have access to Microsoft Office functionality. There are also some strange idiosyncrasies noticeable; for instance holding down the backspace key doesn’t keep deleting text — in some cases it seems to add a % symbol and some numbers.

It is good to see that functions are supported in Excel.

It is good to see that functions are supported in Excel.

What is good to see, however, is that regularly used features such as functions in Excel are supported and with a little bit of work you can import pictures into your documents, though it takes a few steps and it’s unfortunately not the most intuitive thing to do.

Remotely Possible

Working on a system that is remote, even when connected to cloud storage, has its limitations. Local documents and media are not as accessible as you might expect on a PC, for instance. Try adding a video file or a picture into a PowerPoint slide and you get an unceremonious error, although it is encouraging to note on the support site that support for this kind of feature is being worked on.

There are some limitations to running on a remote system.

There are some limitations to running on a remote system.

The Good Stuff

So, with those few niggles out of the way, what can you do with CloudOn? Well, basically, you can create Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents, edit previously saved ones, e-mail them, share them and print them. You can also read Adobe documents with a slimmed down version of the popular Adobe Reader product.
Working in Word is mostly a good experience.

Working in Word is mostly a good experience.

If you don’t have hugely complex editing needs, working in the Microsoft Office applications is actually very easy, and simple to moderate tasks can be performed just as you might do on a PC. Screen acreage is cut in half when the on-screen keyboard is visible, though, and this makes working in Word or Excel a bit like working with a Psion Series 5 slimline landscape screen again (does anyone remember those?).

Using a pivot chart to word count the text of the King James Bible.

Using a Pivot Chart to word count the text of the King James Bible.

I was able to import a relatively large spreadsheet, create a Pivot Table and Chart, and generate a summary graph within minutes of starting to use CloudOn. The more I used the apps, though, the more it was clear that this is really a half-way house solution to proper native iPad Office apps.

One area where CloudOn really struggles is in the area of mouse control. Simple drag and drop movements, arranging items on the screen, or even navigating around the Office applications is, at times, tedious and requires a lot of effort when it comes to multiple tapping, tapping-and-holding, and tap-hold-and-drag combinations. Some elements of touch control work better, such as pinching to zoom in and out andscrolling up and down the page, but perhaps this is just one aspect of the app that will take a little time to get used to.

More Niggles

One of the advantages of using Microsoft Office on a PC or Mac is the ability to have many things open at once, and to cut and paste quickly between them. CloudOn does support the iPad clipboard, but switching to and from to the app causes the Workspace to be loaded each and every time. This gets a little tiresome as you have to wait a good 10-20 seconds each time while your previous work is found, loaded and displayed. Sometimes, you are even greeted with a “File not found” error instead of your previous session, which is more than a little frustrating.
Get used to looking at this screen every time you switch away and back to the app.

Get used to looking at this screen every time you switch away and back to the app.

One other oddity about CloudOn is that there is no concept of File/Save to save a file. You simply tap on the drop-down home option, top left, and your recent changes are saved as that application session is closed. The absence of a File menu is understandable on a locked down, public system such as this, to prevent ne’er do wells from interfering with the system.

Manage Your Work

In the main Workspace area, there are some basic file management options available such as Rename, Copy and Edit. You can drag and drop the files into and onto each other to combine and collect into folders.
Manage your files from the main Workspace area.

Manage your files from the main Workspace area.

You will need to navigate around this main Workspace area for image work. Images can be inserted into your office documents by loading the image into your cloud storage area and then selecting copy whilst viewing through CloudOn.. After you’ve loaded your Microsoft document, you can paste your image into and reposition it to your heart’s content, although not with the ease that you would in a native iPad app such as Pages.

It is worth using the help tutorials and video files on the CloudOn support site to assist in getting familiar with the most commonly used gestures.

On more than one occurrence during my testing, I got the error “A network glitch has occurred”, whilst I was trying to do a complex task, either an import from my local e-mail account or dragging, dropping and resizing an image. It does make me wonder, though, if this was a genuine drop out from my Internet connection or perhaps a connectivity issue with CloudOn‘s service.
Sometimes taxing the system a little too much caused a Network Glitch error.

Sometimes taxing the system a little too much caused a Network Glitch error.

Overall

The potential of CloudOn’s application as a service is enormous, but it has to be implemented in a fully reliable, intuitive way to get widespread acceptance. CloudOn is a huge step in the right direction, but it has a little way to go to iron out some of the niggles I encountered before I would give it a full endorsement, though.


Summary

Cloud based application as service provision for Microsoft Office applications and Adobe reader.

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