There's no good reason Microsoft can't adopt Apple's "Handoff" technology in its iOS and OS X Office apps, according to an analyst.
"Office would be more useful if they did," said Wes Miller, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft. "I don't see a good reason not to."
Handoff, part of "Continuity," a term that describes several new features slated to ship in iOS 8 and OS X Yosemite this fall, lets users begin an activity -- writing an email, browsing the Web, creating a document -- and then resume it on another device. The feature relies on Bluetooth-powered proximity awareness to recognize Apple devices registered to the same iCloud account. Once that ad hoc recognition takes place, users can hand off in-progress tasks.
Apple will support Handoff on many of its own iOS apps and OS X applications bundled with iOS 8 and Yosemite, including the iWork troika of Pages, Numbers and Keynote. But it will also open up Handoff to third-party developers via several APIs (application programming interfaces), giving them a chance to bake the feature into their own software.
If Microsoft were to add Handoff support to its iOS apps -- Office Mobile on the iPhone, Office for iPad on Apple's tablet -- and its desktop edition for OS X, a document begun on the iPad could be picked up on a MacBook Air at the point it was left when the two devices neared each other.
But Microsoft already has its own solution to the multi-device problem in Office, said Miller. "With OneDrive, Microsoft has 'document continuity," Miller said. "You can step away from one device and the document is saved in the background. Then you can open it on another device from OneDrive."
There are differences: When we opened a Word 2013 document on the iPad -- the document was last edited on a Windows 8.1 notebook -- it was positioned with the cursor at the top, not at the location of the last edit. And neither OneDrive nor Office spawned an on-screen alert that pointed the user to the document-in-progress, as does Apple's Handoff.
Microsoft's desire to support Handoff in Office will largely depend on how the company perceives its rival's requirements. To use Handoff, an Apple device owner must have an iCloud ID, and be signed into that account on all hardware meant for content forwarding. (That's how Handoff recognizes the devices owned by an individual.)
Naturally, Microsoft pushes its own identity system for accessing its services, ranging from Office 365 and OneDrive to Outlook.com and Skype.
There should be no concern at Microsoft about document storage, even though Apple makes it much easier for developers who use iCloud as their apps' document repositories. iCloud is not a requirement -- as Microsoft's own Office for iPad demonstrated -- and Microsoft can continue to rely on OneDrive as Office's default online storage service. There were no other obvious barriers in the limited amount of documentation that Apple's published on the technology.
Microsoft would likely benefit in the public perception arena -- or the subset composed of Mac, iPhone and iPad owners -- said Miller. When Microsoft took nine months after Apple debuted a full-screen mode to add the feature to Office's applications, some customers criticized the firm for not putting its shoulder behind the OS X wheel. By jumping on Handoff, Microsoft would shut up those critics.
The move would also let the company again demonstrate that it's in the game with all players, not just those inside its own ecosystem, a point CEO, Satya Nadella, has made numerous times - notably when he introduced Office for iPad - since his February promotion. "They're more open to being open," said Miller, citing the new regime's viewpoint as another factor that could tip the debate.
Miller expected Handoff to debut in Office, if it does at all, when Microsoft launches the next edition for the Mac. "I'd expect Office 365 to pick it up automatically, but I wouldn't expect it on the Mac side until the back-to-school timeframe," said Miller.
Microsoft would also have to revise Office for iPad and the iPhone version of Office Mobile, and if it decided to support Handoff between native and Web-based apps, modify the free online editions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote.
Microsoft has said next to nothing about the next iteration of a Mac Office other than to promise to ship something before the end of the year. By historical trends, Microsoft is already late in delivering an upgrade to Office for Mac 2011, the most-current edition.
Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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