A year into the era of third-party iPhone software, there may be 50,000 applications for Apple’s phone. But nobody needs that many, of course–hey, they’d be a tight squeeze even if you’ve got a 32GB iPhone 3G S. What you want are…the applications you want. One of the ones I want is a solid, simple Microsoft Office-compatible suite for my iPhone. And I’m still waiting for one that’s everything an iPhone suite should be.
Last year, things looked promising: The two major makers of mobile suites, Dataviz and Quickoffice, both announced plans to support the iPhone. Quickoffice got there first, but did so in drips and drabs: First, it released a version that only had a spreadsheet and some file management tools. Then it added a word processor that lacked core features such as autocorrection. Then it finally came out with an update that’s pretty good, but is still hobbled by the fact that there’s no way for it to get at file attachments in the phone’s e-mail application, since Apple don’t permit it. (Instead, you can shuttle documents back and forth via MobileMe or Wi-Fi.)
Yesterday, DataViz announced that its Documents to Go suite was live on the iPhone App Store. And once again, it turns out that it’s less of a suite and more of a work in progress. The current version is a word processor that’s slicker than Quickoffice’s, with two-way file synchronization and optional support for Exchange attachments. But there’s no spreadsheet. DataViz says that people who buy Docs to Go now at discounted prices ($5 without Exchange support, $10 with) will get the spreadsheet for free later.
I’m not sure why it’s taken both companies so long to get their venerable, well-done packages onto the iPhone, other than that building a capable productivity suite that’s compatible with Microsoft Office is a larger challenge than designing even an admirable Twitter client. (Let’s not even discuss fart apps.) I also worry that the pressure on iPhone developers to release apps at the cheapest possible price makes it hard for them to justify investing immense resources in building ambitious stuff: Docs to Go for iPhone may start at five bucks, but the highest-end version of its Palm-based ancestor goes for $90. But maybe suite companies will end up selling enough iPhone products in such high volume that it’ll work out.
Long-term, I remain optimistic: Quickoffice has already made a lot of progress, and a few minutes with Documents to Go’s word processor will tell you that DataViz hasn’t been slacking–it’s just been making sure that what it releases is really good. I also think that Apple will eventually give apps like these the hooks into the OS they need to be integrated with e-mail and other iPhone apps. For now, though, I’m still waiting for iPhone suites to give me everything that came standard on my Psion Series 3 palmtop fifteen years ago.