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ballmerOver the years there has been a great deal of speculation and misinterpretation of Microsoft’s plans to bring its core Office programs to Apple’s iPad. So much that it’s not always easy to separate truth from fiction.

So you can probably understand my skepticism when reading second-hand reports about Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer’s comments on the topic yesterday at a Gartner conference in Orlando.

So what did Ballmer actually say? I’m less skeptical after seeing the relevant portion of a transcript from the Gartner event. Ballmer did, in fact, provide more clarity on the topic than Microsoft has offered in the past.

His comments came in response to Gartner analyst David Cearley asking when users will get “a more complete Office, a native type of Office on the iPad.” After some back-and-forth about Microsoft’s Lync and OneNote apps for iPad, the Microsoft CEO got down to the core subject.

“Word, PowerPoint and Excel are all sort of authoring tools. They are optimized for use with keyboards and mice. The last time I checked, the iPad didn’t have a paradigm for keyboard and mice,” Ballmer said. “So iPad will be picked up when we do what I would call not just a touch-enabled but a touch-first user interface for Word, Excel and PowerPoint.”

This earlier spy shot from The Daily, the now-defunct iPad newspaper, purported to show a prototype of Office on the iPad.

The touch-first interface of those programs “is in progress, for both Windows 8 and other platforms,” he said, adding, “It is definitively, 100 percent in progress.”

Microsoft executive Qi Lu, who oversees the Office business, offered similar remarks about a “touch-first” Office in response to a question at the company’s recent meeting with financial analysts. However, he didn’t actually use the word “iPad” — referring instead to plans to bring the touch-first Office programs to Windows and “other devices.”

Several reports based on Ballmer’s comments this week have said this touch-first Office interface would come for Windows 8 first, and then the iPad, and that may well be the case. But for the record, it doesn’t appear that Ballmer made any reference to timing in his actual comments, based on the portion of the transcript I’ve seen.

This is an interesting topic in part as a litmus test for the modern-day Microsoft. The company has made Office for the Mac for years, of course, but the iPad’s popularity makes this a trickier situation. The company still wants to differentiate its own Windows 8 tablets, but in the meantime many investors and analysts are concerned that it’s missing a key opportunity by not making the core Office programs for the Apple tablet.

One key question: Will Microsoft require an Office 365 subscription for the core Office apps on iPad, as it does with the iPhone version? The answer to that is probably yes. But the big wild card here, as with many things at Microsoft these days, is how Ballmer’s successor, whoever it is, might shake things up.

Update: Computerworld’s Gregg Keizer noted in his post on Ballmer’s remarks that previous comments by the Microsoft CEO do indicate that the “touch-first” Office will come first on Microsoft devices. Ballmer said at Microsoft’s analyst meeting (emphasis added), “The truth of the matter is, our devices carry our services, and our services will be available on a number of people’s devices. And I think the order is important.

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