When Microsoft and Nokia announced Aug 12 that the software giant is bringing its Office Mobile application to Symbian OS, I immediately started wondering how it would work. When I heard that the Symbian version of Office Mobile will be designed with business users in mind, I was even more intrigued. Microsoft’s Office Mobile app is an entry in a highly competitive market. And although it’s a widely recognized product, its mobile implementation isn’t nearly as appealing as it should be.
In my experience with Office Mobile, the application has failed to provide much benefit. Reading documents is extremely difficult on a Windows Mobile product. Thanks to the small screen sizes used by many Windows Mobile phones, most users find themselves scrolling from left to right on the screen just to get some work done.
It gets worse when it comes time to edit. Typing is fine, but finding the right place, cutting and pasting elements, and ensuring proper formatting is a nightmare. Spreadsheets are just as bad. And since most Windows Mobile smartphones simply don’t provide the kind of power required by presentations, it’s almost a waste of time to use Office Mobile for this business application.
That said, Office Mobile can be convenient for those who want to make a few quick changes to a document before it’s shipped off to a client. Simply being able to read a document on a smartphone isn’t enough. The option to edit it is a requirement. For all its troubles, that’s one of the main reasons why Office Mobile still does provide some value.
But it can do so much more. And if Microsoft wants protect its position in the mobile business applications field as Google and Research In Motion start capturing mobile market share, it needs to do more soon.
Following Google’s lead
Microsoft needs to consider Google as it develops Office Mobile. As Google has proven since it first announced Google Docs, simplicity is key. Google Docs can’t match Office on the desktop for companies that need to do more, but it’s that simplicity that will be coveted when workers go mobile.
The problem with Office Mobile is that Microsoft tries to do too much. I realize that because documents were created on desktops, many elements may not work with a mobile app unless they’re specifically built in. But who cares?
For the most part, users of Office Mobile apps aren’t trying to work as they would when they’re on their notebooks. They’re trying to perform some basic operations that slightly improve the document. They don’t expect a workhorse. They expect greater usability on mobile devices.
Job One: Improving Usability
Speed as a differentiator
Microsoft should focus its efforts on ensuring that the new Office Mobile app for Symbian will appeal to users’ desire for speed and efficiency. In a matter of seconds, users should be able to download a document from e-mail and open it in Office Mobile. From there, the software’s focus should be on fast response times. It also should provide easy access to features that reduce the amount of time users spend editing documents with a small keyboard and a tiny display. The less time it takes for users to complete a task, the more appealing the software.
Work with the menus
One of my biggest problems with Office Mobile is its poorly designed menu system. It’s too difficult to find basic features. Perhaps that’s partly an issue with Windows Mobile, but then again, it might just be a flaw in the Office Mobile software.
Microsoft needs to work on its menu systems. Office 2007 was a prime example of Microsoft understanding its users. It kept the most-used features close by, while maintaining usability. It worked. Microsoft should follow that plan with Office Mobile on Symbian. The menus should be easily accessible. The most common options should be readily available. All those options that most people don’t use shouldn’t be given the same weight as those that are used more often. Remember: It’s about speed and simplicity.
Perhaps more than anything, Microsoft’s focus should be placed firmly on beating the competition; namely, Google and RIM. What can it do with Office Mobile to beat Google? How can it innovate to make Google Docs look obsolete? These are questions Microsoft must answer if it wants to be successful.
Luckily for the company, it will have plenty of time to ponder all these usability and market issues. Neither Nokia nor Microsoft expect more than an instant messaging platform to be made available by 2010. Office Mobile apps will probably hit Symbian OS in 2011. That should give it more than enough time to improve its offering.