With Office 2016 Coming to Windows Store, Microsoft Demotes Office Mobile

Posted on May 3, 2017 by Paul Thurrott in Office, Office 365, Windows 10 with 43 Comments

With Office 2016 Coming to Windows Store, Microsoft Demotes Office Mobile

Several readers have pointed out to me that Windows 10 users on PCs can no longer browse for the Office Mobile apps in Windows Store, though they are still available if you have a direct link. What’s going on?

Great question. But first, a bit of background.

As you may know, Microsoft confusingly makes two versions of several Office apps that run on Windows 10. There are the traditional desktop applications that come individually or as part of Office 2016. And then the Office Mobile apps, which include Word Mobile, Excel Mobile, PowerPoint Mobile, and OneNote Mobile. (The latter of which is actually included with Windows 10 as well. Adding to the confusion: Anyone can download the OneNote 2016 desktop application for free.)

Looked at broadly, the Office 2016 desktop applications are complex but full-featured. You must pay to use these applications—well, except for OneNote—and the most typical way to acquire them these days is as part of an Office 365 subscription.

By comparison, the Office Mobile apps are simple but basic, and the versions we see on Windows 10 are nearly identical to the Office Mobile apps on Android, iPhone, and iPad. They are also free, though you must have an Office 365 subscription to access some functionality.

Frankly, I think the Office Mobile apps are toys, and I’m surprised that Microsoft hasn’t improved them to be more powerful on Windows 10. This is, I think, a lost opportunity. But it is also an interesting commentary on the state of the Universal Windows Platform (UWP)—on Windows 10, the Office Mobile apps are built on UWP—which has never resulted in a single professional application of any kind.

Microsoft has seen some success, however, with a technology called Desktop Bridge (formerly “Project Centennial”). This solution addresses a very real problem for many developers, in that they may have a large, complex legacy application that was built for the Windows desktop years ago and will never be replaced by a more modern version. Oftentimes, it’s just too complex to do so, and not worth the effort for many reasons. (For example, desktop applications will work on 1.5 billion PCs whereas UWP apps will only work on 400 million Windows 10 PCs.)

So using the Desktop Bridge, a developer can wrap their desktop application in a UWP container, essentially, and distribute it via Windows Store. In doing so, they automatically gain access to Microsoft’s app updating infrastructure, and developers can also choose to extend these versions of their apps with UWP features like live tiles, notifications, and the like. For these reasons, Desktop Bridge apps are also a win for Windows 10 users. Though to date, we’ve only seen a few high-profile examples of such apps, like Adobe Photoshop Elements, Evernote, and, soon, Spotify.

Now, Microsoft has chosen to release at least some of its Office 2016 desktop applications through the Windows Store, and it is of course using that same Desktop Bridge technology to make it happen. The resulting applications will be just as complex to use as the “normal” versions, but will also be just as powerful. They will be “better” than the normal versions in that updating will happen through the Store automatically and not via some custom desktop updater that can steal performance at boot-up and other times. They will almost certainly take advantage of UWP features, too, though Microsoft has not really explained what it’s doing there.

Instead, what Microsoft has done is described the schedule: Starting in June, it will make preview versions of some Office 2016 applications—Word, Excel and PowerPoint 2016—available in the Windows Store for Education only, and perhaps only to those running Windows 10 S. (The wording is unclear.) Office 2016 will become generally available in the Microsoft Store for Education later this calendar year, Microsoft says.

I assume—but probably shouldn’t—that all of the Office 2016 desktop applications, and the entire Office 2016 suites, will be available in the Windows Store for everybody at some point. That is, if you have any applicable Office 365 subscription, you should be able to download those applications from the Store to take advantage of the unique advantages. Likewise, if you just want to purchase, say, Word 2016, from the Store, you should be able to do so.

Leaving aside for a moment what this means to the future of the toy Office Mobile apps, this much is certain: At some point fairly recently, Microsoft removed the ability to browse or search for Word, Excel, and PowerPoint Mobile from the Store on Windows 10. You can try it now yourself: You won’t find them on a PC.

Unless you know the trick: You just need a direct link to each. Which you can find easily enough by searching the web-based version of Windows Store. For example, I installed each of these apps on a Surface Book last night using the following links:

Word Mobile for Windows 10
Excel Mobile for Windows 10
PowerPoint Mobile for Windows 10

So what gives? My guess is that Microsoft is purposefully deemphasizing the toy apps, and is preparing to switch over to the desktop applications in the Store. And they would prefer for those with real PCs to see only the full-featured Office 2016 desktop applications and not the toy Office Mobile apps.

And yes, I do think that Office 2016 is coming to the Store for everyone: Microsoft’s event yesterday was about the education market, so the communications likewise emphasized that. (And there were other Office/Office 365 announcements for education as well.) But it doesn’t make sense for Microsoft to limit the availability of these applications. And I don’t believe they will.

But as of today, all we know for sure is that these applications are coming to Office 365 for Education customers, in preview form, in June. And that the Office Mobile apps are suddenly a bit hard to find from Windows 10. Curious.


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