Microsoft said this week that it was “partnering” with Google to ensure that its Office apps for Android will work with all compatible Chromebooks.
Microsoft also clarified how Office licensing will work on Chromebooks.
“Our strategy has not changed,” Microsoft told the 9to5Google website when asked about Office apps for Android on Chromebook. “Office for Android is supported on Chrome OS devices via the Google Play Store. While Google Play on Chrome OS is in beta, we are partnering with Google to deliver the best experience for Chromebook users and plan to make the apps available on all compatible devices by general availability.”
So there are a couple of things happening here.
Strictly speaking, there’s no such thing as third-party “native” apps on Android per se; before the arrival of Android app compatibility, Chromebook users could access a library of web-based apps only. Granted, many of these provide offline capabilities and other features one might associate with true native apps. And yes, Chrome OS of course offers in-box native apps for basic needs such as file system access, video playback, and the like.
But Android app compatibility changes things quite a bit for Chromebook users. And there’s an argument to be made that Android apps on Chromebook are, in effect, “native” apps. They are certainly local apps.
Point being, the arrival of Android apps on Chromebook means that Microsoft’s Office apps for Android will soon run natively—and locally—on Chromebook devices. For this to happen, however, Microsoft must specifically tailor those apps for Chromebooks, most of which do not support touch screens. And for specific Chromebook models, since each can provide its own unique functionality as well. So in a way, the Office apps for Android can be seen as native Chromebook apps, since they will soon be updated specifically for this usage.
Tied to this, too, is the notion of licensing. As you may recall, Microsoft makes the mobile versions of its Office apps available for free on devices with 10.1-inch screens and smaller. But those with devices with larger screens—i.e. most PCs, Macs, and now Chromebooks—will need a paid Office 365 subscription to use these apps.
That “strategy has not changed” comment addresses licensing: With Chromebook, the Office apps for Android will work as they do on Android. Meaning that those with Chromebooks with smaller (10.1 inches or smaller) screens will be able to use the Office apps for free. Most Chromebook users, of course, will need an Office 365 subscription.
Actually, it’s a bit more nuanced than that.
While basic functionality is indeed free on smaller mobile devices, users will still need an Office 365 subscription to access so-called “premium” Office app features.
“After signing in with a free Microsoft account, the core viewing, creating, editing and printing experience is free in Office apps for iOS, Android and Windows 10 Mobile, on devices 10.1-inches or smaller,” Microsoft says. “An Office 365 subscription enables scenarios where consumers want to do things that go beyond the basic freemium experience such as using track changes in Word, Pivot Tables in Excel or Presenter View in PowerPoint. On devices larger than 10.1-inches, an Office 365 subscription is required to unlock the ability to create, edit or print documents.”
Because Android app support for Chromebooks is currently beta, it’s not exactly clear which features will require a subscription on small-screen devices. But if Microsoft utilizes the same list of features as it does on Android tablets, this handy chart explains what it will look like.
In Microsoft Word, you will need an Office 365 subscription to track and review changes, change page orientation, insert page and section breaks, highlight table cells with custom color shading, enable columns in page layout, and customize headers and footers for different pages. In PowerPoint, features such as the ability to save ink annotations from slide shows, highlight table cells with custom color shading, and Presenter View require a subscription. And in Excel, you will need Office 365 to customize pivot tables styles and layouts, apply custom colors to shapes, insert and edit WordArt, and add shadows and reflection styles to pictures.
So, no real surprises. But it will be interesting to see how Office for Android evolves to accommodate unique Chromebook functionality and form factors. And whether it edges closer to the full-fledged Office apps on Windows and Mac.