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Microsoft hits home run with Office for iPad

It has taken years of development -- and endless, vigorous denials that the product even existed -- but Microsoft [MSFT] finally unveiled its Office suite for the iPad last week. Ironically, it did this on the first day of the annual Macworld conference in San Francisco. And now that I've had a few days to explore its capabilities, it's obvious that this isn't a typical we'll-get-it-right-in-the-next-version product release from the software maker. Office for the iPad is absolutely superb, and perhaps the finest version 1.0 release in Microsoft's history.

That said, it's not a single download. If you want it all, you'll need to find and install Word, PowerPoint and Excel separately in the app store (though a single search for Office should turn them all up quite easily). They're all free to install, and that lets you view existing documents stored locally on your iPad or on OneDrive. In order to edit or create documents, you'll need an Office 365 subscription -- sign in to Office with your Microsoft account, and all the apps' features light up.

Note that not all the Office apps are represented here. OneNote has been available on the iPad for a long time, and Outlook is perhaps redundant on a tablet with an excellent mail app that already fully supports Microsoft Exchange. So what's truly missing are less popular members of the suite like Publisher and Access.

Word, Excel and PowerPoint are simply stunning to use. Microsoft clearly built these apps purposefully, including virtually all of the most common features from the desktop version, optimizing it for touch. All three apps retain the modern ribbon interface, but everything is sized generously for touch, and the interface is logically organized and gorgeous to look at.

Only rarely do the apps throw you a curveball when trying to find a common feature. Take "find and replace," for instance: To replace text in a document, you need to tap the magnifying glass at the top of the screen and tap the unassuming gear that then appears at the far left, beside a text field. From there, you can enter the text to search for and to replace. There's nothing even remotely like that in the desktop version.

You'll be hard-pressed to find missing features. Word, for example, has a wealth of formatting tools, full support for templates, tables, styling, track changes, headers and footers, and even spell-check and word count features. Even the full array of picture styles is supported, which means you can insert and format images about the same as on the desktop. You'll find a similar attention to detail in Excel and PowerPoint; these really do behave like complete versions of Office apps, just optimized for a touch screen and Apple's design aesthetic.

So what's missing? For sure, you won't find mail merge, grammar check or any integrated print feature. And if you're a true Office power user, you'll find that less common features are missing as well, like some of the suite's advanced references tools, and page watermarking. But one could easily argue that these "deep cut" features aren't needed on the iPad, given the kind of editing you're likely to do on a tablet. And in a few cases, Microsoft added custom features that make the tablet easier to use without a keyboard, like the custom numeric keypad in Excel.

Office for iPad is a true game changer. Yes, it took Microsoft a very long time to get to this point, but they're here. If you have an existing Office 365 subscription, you get all of this for free -- if not, you can use the suite as an attractive, high-fidelity document viewer. The suite also shows Microsoft's strategy around its OneDrive cloud solution starting to take hold.

Bottom line: Office for iPad makes the iPad truly business-worthy in a way it simply never was before. If there's a downside for Microsoft, it's simply that it highlights just how clumsy its Surface tablets are.