iPad owners, are you feeling constrained in your content creation choices? While there are some savvy cloud-connected apps that let you open, edit or share your Microsoft Office-formatted documents, relatively few will connect to multiple data sources, sync files with a desktop PC, track changes in Word docs or keep the visual fidelity of a file. Even fewer claim to show PowerPoint presentations with animations, transitions and other flair intact.
Several of the standalone/offline-capable apps with this sort of pedigree have been gobbled up by Big Search (QuickOffice bought by Google, and stripped of the ability to talk to non-Google Drive cloud storage) or Big Terminal (Byte Squared, publisher of Office2HD, was acquired by Citrix). Apple's Pages and Numbers, while quite capable with their own file formats, aren't always 100% when dealing with Microsoft-formatted files. Apps like CloudOn, Parallels Desktop and Onlive work around the visual fidelity issue by connecting to a terminal-enabled version of a real Windows PC, but that approach has latency and UI issues galore.
That's why the new hopTo app for iPad is so interesting. It layers a fresh-looking and somewhat minimal file management stack over connectors to Dropbox, Google Drive, Box.com and even your very own Windows PC. From any of those sources, you can easily edit both Word and Excel-formatted files on the go -- even inserting pictures from the web or from your iPad's local image library. PowerPoint decks aren't editable, but they are presentable; they keep the fonts, images and animations/transitions from the desktop experience.
The app presents your documents in a simple, tabbed interface that does allow you to open and work on two docs simultaneously -- a rarity in the one-task-at-a-time world of iOS. In Excel documents, you even get a custom numeric keypad to enter your figures. PDF, image and other filetypes are generally viewable rather than editable.
Document visual fidelity and tracked change support is excellent in hopTo; in fact, you get access to all of the standard Office fonts, which is pretty much unheard of in an iOS app that isn't doing a terminal connection in the background. Founder/CEO Eldad Eilam didn't confirm the infrastructure to me when he previewed hopTo last week, but I strongly suspect that underneath the gloss, hopTo is doing something similar to CloudOn's "remote Office" and providing some remote application resources to render the document. (Don't bother trying to use hopTo in Airplane Mode or away from connectivity; it doesn't work offline and will time out after a few minutes in the background, another pair of clues to the approach used to build the service.)
One challenge with the lean hopTo interface is that it isn't immediately obvious how to perform operations on files, or create new ones. The trick is the "long press" -- tap and hold on a file icon or on the plus button, rather than a quick tap. If you do a long press on a file icon, you get hopTo's "orbit menu" where you can email files, delete, favorite, and so on. Long-pressing the plus button, which conventionally creates a new tab, allows you to start up a new Word or Excel doc in the cloud folder of your choice. In a PowerPoint full-screen slideshow, you long-press to get your controls back and escape out of the show.
The initial version of hopTo has some quirky corners, as you might expect from a 1.0; among several minor disappointments, it can't edit native-format Google Docs files -- but then again, neither can Google's own Quickoffice app (it hands them off to the separate Google Drive app, which is a bit disconcerting). Still, as a free tool with reasonably complete editing capabilities for both Word and Excel documents, it's quite good. As a PowerPoint viewer/presenter that tries to keep track with the original presentation, it's extraordinary.