Quickoffice and the Paradox of the iPhone Platform

By  |  Wednesday, September 10, 2008 at 11:11 pm

Paradoxical but true: The iPhone is both the most highly evolved mobile platform ever and one that’s remarkably rudimentary in some major ways. What’s good about it is so good that I sometimes forget that. But every time I do, something happens to remind me of the things it still can’t do, and of how little we know of Apple’s road map for the phone and its software.

CTIA Wireless IT & Entertainment, the fall edition of the big cell phone show, is going on in San Francisco this week, and as usual the Mobile Focus press event piggybacked on it. I attended MobileFocus tonight and was pleased to find the Quickoffice folks–who make office suites for the Symbian and Palm platforms– there. I was even more pleased when they told me they were getting into the iPhone software business.

They showed me a free application they plan to ship in November that lets you do something you might assume Apple’s MobileMe would do: allow you to shuttle files between the iPhone and the iDisk online storage that comes with a MobileMe account. Quickoffice’s software supports the WebDAV standard, so it also works with Box.net, Google Docs, and other forms of online storage. Very clever.

I was more excited, though, about some applications that the company plans to release in the first quarter of next year for $10 apiece: a word processor, a spreadsheet, and a presentation program for the iPhone. All support basic editing, unlike the pure file viewers for Office documents that the iPhone comes with. I’d been skeptical about office apps on the iPhone–the on-screen keyboard eats up so much of the screen that I thought it would be too hard to enter data and see your document at the same time–but Quickoffice’s spreadsheet and word processor looked impressive in the glimpse I got of early versions. You wouldn’t want to do any heavy-duty or even medium-duty editing on a phone with no keyboard, but for quick tweaks, Quickoffice on the iPhone could make a lot of sense.

And then it dawned on me: The iPhone’s e-mail app lets you Office files in the phone’s built-in file viewers, but doesn’t let you save ’em to a file system that other apps can get to. I asked a Quickoffice rep if it could work with file attachments. And he explained what I’d figured out already: The iPhone sandboxes every application and gives them no access to the file system, so there’s no way for its office apps to get at attachments that people send you. In this respect, the phone is crippled in a way that even the humblest handheld from fifteen years ago was not.

Hence Quickoffice’s utility for letting the iPhone get at MobileMe’s iDisks and other online storage systems: It’s an alternative means of moving documents on and off the phone. And a pretty clever one, actually–I want to get my hands on its apps as soon as I can. But Quickoffice would be a lot more useful if you could use it with file attachments, and there’s nothing that the company can do to make that happen. It’s all up to Apple.

(Um, I take that back, maybe: I wonder if there’s a way for a company like Quickoffice to implement some sort of basic e-mail capability within its applications that could do nothing except selectively get at file attachments associated with e-mail in your invox, and send e-mail with files attached. It might work, but it would be one heck of a kludge.)

Apple wouldn’t have to remove the sandboxing or turn the iPhone file system into a free-for-all to let Quickoffice work easily the iPhone’s e-mail app and the attachments therein. Some sort of hooks that let iPhone users associate Office file attachments with an application other than the phone’s file viewers would do the trick, and wouldn’t open the phone up to security or reliability problems. It wouldn’t just help Quickoffice: All sorts of applications would benefit, including Quickoffice archival Documents to Go, if it comes out in an iPhone version.

Apple would benefit, too. It’s promoting the iPhone as the best business phone ever. An iPhone with one or more office suites that can realize their full potential would come a lot closer to living up to that moniker. And it seems unlikely that the company will ever come out with its own iWorks suite for the phone.

I’m an iPhone optimist: I tend to think that over time, Apple will do just about everything you’d want it to do with this platform, including lowering the walls between applications enough to let them work with each other and with Apple’s built-in apps. I just have no idea when it might happen in the next few weeks, the next few months, or the next few years…

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