By Bob O'Donnell, VP of Clients and Displays, IDC

This article was originally published on the Office Matters web site on January 19, 2011

The early days of client computing devices weren't terribly unlike the early days of automobiles: everything was fine as long as you wanted a black Ford Model T, or its computing equivalent: a desktop PC. Over the last decade or so, however, we have seen an explosion of new form factors and new capabilities, all driven around the desire for greater mobility and freedom from the "chained-to-the-desk" computing model offered by desktop PCs. Driven by the forces behind Moore's Law, companies have created devices that seem to continually shrink in size and yet increase in processing power. Concurrent with and helping drive these changes has been the dramatic expansion of wireless networking technologies, notably WiFi and 3G cellular connections.

The end result has been a huge influx of notebooks, netbooks (a.k.a., mininotebooks), smartphones, and other mobile connected devices, such as media tablets like Apple's iPad or RIM's Playbook. While some of these devices have been specifically designed to replace desktop PCs, most are actually supplemental and incremental. (Even today, desktop PCs represent 55% of all business PCs sold, with notebooks making up the other 45%.) As a result, the new norm for both business PC users and most consumers is the ownership and usage of multiple connected intelligent devices.

Easy and nearly constant access to these various devices has given people continuous access to the web, email, instant messaging, and every other kind of online service from nearly anywhere in the world. But as appealing as the concept of owning multiple devices may sound, it comes with a number of challenges, probably the most confounding of which is getting equal access to all your Microsoft Office and other documents on all these devices.

Each of them now offers as much or more computing power as the desktop PCs of just a few years ago, so it's not unrealistic to expand or demand that you have access to your documents. In fact, in surveys of end users running mininotebooks, using office productivity applications is the third most common application on those devices behind web browsing and email. On media tablets (specifically, the iPad), our surveys show that more than 50% of owners use office productivity applications at least once a week.

Notebooks, mininotebooks, and new mobile phones running Windows Phone 7 all typically provide the ability to run Microsoft Office natively, but for other devices, the solutions aren't always quite as simple. Some smartphones have utilities available that let you view or even edit native Office documents directly on them, but others can only open the files with file conversion utilities that often lose a lot of formatting or even critical content in the translation process. Microsoft has started to make that process better for iPhone owners with this week's introduction of OneNote Mobile for iOS, the first of what is expected to be several mobile Office applications that run natively on non-Microsoft operating system-based devices. Not only does OneNote for the iPhone provide a device-optimized version of the application, it links to Microsoft's cloud-based Windows Live SkyDrive storage service, which enables you to share and synchronize your OneNote files across all your devices.

Another solution for getting access to Office documents on other devices is leveraging web-based versions of Office, most of which will work fine on platforms that don't support Office natively. Using the browser built into these devices, consumers and business people can open, view, and even edit most types of Office documents, helping people work wherever they need to, on whatever device they happen to have.

The number of devices that people will own and use is unlikely to diminish anytime soon, as people continue to look for flexibility in device sizes, features, and connectivity options, but that doesn't have to be a deterrent to getting work done, as cloud-based options for Office as well as new mobile versions of Office apps, such as OneNote, can help support today's diverse computing options.