(Illustration by Justin Renteria)

Funny thing about Office for iPad, Microsoft Corporation’s long-awaited tablet-friendly version of its flagship productivity suite that is a core application of every Am Law 100, 200 and 50,000 firm on the planet. We’ve waited so long for this, and now that it’s here, it’s exciting to see it get so many things right. Yet at the same time, the three apps in the set—Word, Excel and PowerPoint—expose the inherent shortfalls of the iPad as a front-line business tool. So while Office for iPad will earn a lot of justifiable praise, it may stir up some disappointment, too. After all these years waiting for the full potential of the iPad to be unleashed, that potential, perhaps, is a bit less than we had hoped.

Don’t get me wrong: The decision to download these apps is a no-brainer. They retain much of Office’s functionality. They’re easy to use. They look great. And if you simply want to view Office docs with formatting intact and maybe present some PowerPoint presentations, you can do that, and do it well, without paying a dime. (Editing requires an Office 365 subscription, which runs $100 a year.) The key is not to expect these apps to replicate your desktop Office experience. They won’t. But they will complement it—extremely effectively.

Microsoft made a bold decision when it set out to put Office on the iPad: It started from scratch. This is in stark contrast to the version of Office that runs on the company’s own Surface 2 tablet. Office RT—which ships with the Surface 2—is basically the desktop version of Office plunked down on a tablet. It has most of full-blown Office’s functionality and all of its familiarity. Those pros can also be cons, however. The jam-packed ribbons and menus are too small for manipulating comfortably via touch—or, well, seeing.

So kudos to Microsoft for attempting to build a more tablet-friendly interface. The effort largely succeeds. Touch and gestures work great, with these ribbons and menus striking an excellent balance between capabilities and usability. There is a surprisingly rich feature set here, yet it’s all easy to control. That said, there will be a slight learning curve for many users. Ribbon icons, for example, don’t have labels, as they do on desktop Office. You have to recognize what the pictures mean. If you’re familiar with the ins and outs of the desktop version, this won’t be a problem. But if you’ve traditionally stuck to a smallish set of features (say, basic writing and editing tools), the function of many icons won’t be immediately apparent.

Not every desktop feature is available. In the case of Word, which no doubt will be the most popular of the three apps for lawyers, there is a spell checker but no thesaurus; you can create headers and footers but not a table of contents; you can add footnotes but not a bibliography. Most important, you can’t print. But more on that in a bit.

What really dazzles in iPad Word is the one feature that is essential for most lawyers: review. Replicating the commenting, tracked changes, and host of review-related options and commands of desktop Word has been the Holy Grail of Word-emulation apps. And for them, it remains the Holy Grail. In the four years since the iPad’s release, I haven’t come across a single app that effectively recreated Word’s review tools. Invariably, something, and often a lot more than something, was missing or poorly implemented.

The good news is that it is no longer a Holy Grail for the rest of us. The full suite of review tools is here—and it all works remarkably well. You don’t just see (and for those that have the fully unlocked app, create) comments and tracked changes—you have full control over how they display, just as on the desktop version. You can choose to see files with all markups or no markups (for easier reading). You can see changes and comments from selected reviewers, view only insertions and deletions, and so on. You can accept and reject changes and move between them using icon buttons, just as on the desktop. These capabilities have been sorely lacking on the iPad. Now they are here, they are super, and they are reason alone for anyone who even occasionally uses Word to download this app.

But what about that printing issue? It’s true, there is, at least for the moment, no ability to print a document through Word on the iPad. While this may seem like a glaring omission, think about it: How often do you print from your iPad? I’ve owned an iPad since Day One and the number of times I have printed from it equals the number of times my kids have said, “No, you’re right, Dad, $8 is too much for a cup of ice cream.” OK, there are people who print from their iPad. But even when apps let you do so, the process is not seamless. You have to use a printer that employs Apple Inc.’s AirPrint technology and is running over your local network. Keep in mind, too, that when you take your iPad on the go, you’re probably not taking your AirPrint-compatible printer and local network with you. Should Microsoft have included a print capability? Yes. Is it a deal-breaker that it didn’t? No, because that’s not how most of us use our iPads, anyway.

More troubling for me was how the Office apps exposed and highlighted the shortcomings of the iPad as a business tool. File management is poor on the iPad—an app will save a document, but there’s typically no way to access the document outside that app, unless you email it to yourself or store it on a cloud-based service like Dropbox. This is no secret, but as you store document after document on Word for iPad it’s a quirk that becomes more and more frustrating. You can save files locally, which means they will be buried somewhere within the Word app (accessible to Word, but nothing else). You can email them (via Word itself, since no other app, including the iPad’s own email software, will be able to access the files). You can save them to a cloud service—as long as it’s Microsoft’s OneDrive, a major gripe for those of us who are wedded to Dropbox. I’ve said it time and again: If the iPad wants to get serious about business users, it needs a more business-friendly (or heck, user-friendly) file management scheme.

Meanwhile, Word’s rich set of review tools makes it all the more clear that the iPad’s screen just isn’t big enough. With so much being displayed—comments, insertions, deletions, formatting changes—the 9.7-inch screen that seemed fine for less “busy” documents now seems far too small. How many of us, after all, edit annotated Word documents on a 10-inch laptop? Finally, as good as Office for iPad’s touch interface is, you can’t help but feel that the experience would be better still with a trackpad and mouse—capabilities that Apple has yet to enable (and ones that work to excellent effect on the Surface 2′s Office implementation).

Office for iPad earns a wholehearted recommendation. It will noticeably, and perhaps dramatically, boost the productivity of your iPad. That’s no small thing. But it won’t transform how you use your iPad. Think of it as a way to get real work done when you’ve got a chunk of time and a tablet. But don’t think of it as the app that finally lets your iPad replace your laptop. That Holy Grail remains, too.

Contributing editor Alan Cohen writes about law firms and technology. Email: alanc31@yahoo.com.