Apple has made a bonehead play that damages the iPad's potential for business. But, Microsoft, believe it or not, could come to the rescue. Here's why:

Apple put iWork, not a great tool to begin with, on the iPad. It's better than nothing, but while iWork can read Microsoft Office formats, it can't be set to save DOC files by default. What a mistake.

While Apple's home and student customers may be fine with this annoying limitation, business users can't be endlessly exporting documents to share with colleagues and customers. Unless Apple makes this important change to iWork on the iPad, the forthcoming tablet will be a good device to view written content, but will fall flat when it comes to creating it.

But suppose Microsoft (hold the boos, please) decided there was money to be made here, and created a version of Office for the tablet? Given the relative lack of storage and so on, iPad Office couldn't be full-featured, but since most of us only use a fraction of Office's capabilities, that wouldn't be a show stopper. In fact, we'd have a device that would be useful for small business, and would probably cut deeply into sales of netbooks.

Apple has some additional work to do as well. If the iPad is to become the superlight computing device of choice, it has to support a full-featured browser, and that means supporting Flash. Whether Apple likes it or not, Flash is ubiquitous, and going to a website and getting that annoying error message and chunk of blank screen is a bummer.

Google Docs and ZOHO: Online but not offline

Am I serious about Microsoft stepping in? Yes, it would be a great idea, and it would make money for Microsoft. But I'd be surprised if Ballmer & Co. had the imagination to make that move. So, I don't expect it to happen, at least not immediately.

But there are alternatives, albeit limited, you can likely use as soon as the iPad hits the stores.

Google Docs would probably run fairly well on the iPad, but there are two caveats. The first has to do with screen real estate, the second with Google Gears.

When the iPad is in the editing or writing mode, a virtual keyboard pops up, making it hard to see the tools you need to write and edit a document. You might be able to work around this issue, but it would certainly slow you down.

More serious, I think, is the lack of support for Google Gears, which is necessary to run Google docs offline. Without that capability, there's no way to work on documents on an airplane, for example, which is a mighty big downside. When Google and the somewhat similar ZOHO are used offline, they can later be synched with the cloud versions, ensuring that you have the current versions of your documents. (Thanks to Harry McCracken of Technologizer for mentioning these points to me.)

ZOHO also needs Google gears to work offline. However, since the Safari browser already supports parts of the developing HTML 5 standard, it shouldn't be too long until ZOHO, and likely Google, will work offline on the iPad, says Raju Vegesna, ZOHO's chief evangelist.

HTML 5 is expected to reduce or even eliminate the need for the many of the plugins needed today by browsers. Indeed, HTML 5, which is strongly backed by Apple, should ultimately make the Flash-support issue disappear, Vegesna says. But how long that will take is unclear.

QuickOffice and Roambi could help

Then there's QuickOffice, a nifty little app that runs on the iPhone and a number of its competitors. It gives basic editing capabilities to use with Word and Excel documents, and allows you to view (but not edit) PowerPoints.

Clearly, that's not the way you want to work all the time, but I find QuickOffice helpful even when used on the small iPhone screen. It should be quite a bit better after the company tweaks its app to take advantage of the comparatively huge iPad. That should happen by the time the tablet reaches consumers, the company told me on Monday.

Roambi produces colourful charts and graphs from your spreadsheets and business intelligence reports, making complex data readable on the small iPhone screen, so it should work on the iPad. The processing occurs on Roambi's secure server. Like QuickOffice, it is available from the iTunes app store.