iWork: Long in the Tooth

August 21st, 2012

In the tech world, three years is an eternity, so it may come as a surprise to realize that Apple’s own office productivity suite, iWork ’09, was first released in January of that year. Since then, there have been a few maintenance updates, and the latest versions of the three apps that make up the suite, Pages, Numbers, and Keynote, are fully compatible with Mountain Lion’s Auto Save, Version and full screen features. Microsoft remains behind the curve, having apparently forgotten the promise to make Office 2011 compatible with Lion that was made last year.

Now that an app doesn’t receive a major upgrade doesn’t make it less usable. Some prefer older versions of Microsoft Office, for example, simply because they aren’t quite as bloated with useless features. I have one client, who consults for education, who runs Word 5.1a on an old Power Mac, using an ancient macro program from the 1990s to automate his workflow. He does have a newer version of Word on his iMac, but cannot find any new features that he needs. This is doubly true on the Windows platform, where much of what Office 2013 has to offer is a pathetic implementation of touch for the benefit of Windows 8 users.

That iWork hasn’t seen a major update doesn’t necessarily mean that the existing version is close enough to perfect not to require some changes. I still see some raggedness around the edges, such as relatively slow initial launch times, somewhat slower than Word 2011. You’d think a relatively lightweight app would somehow get going in a more efficient fashion. Subsequent launches of Pages are pretty quick, however.

But the real issue with Pages is the fidelity of translation with Office documents. Text documents seem to go back and forth without serious glitches. But writers will rely on Track Changes to keep tabs of ongoing edits. Publishers generally insist on full Word compatibility, and sometimes provide Word templates or macros to ensure that the copy you prepare is correctly formatted. The Track Changes feature in Page is passably accurate. Macros simply won’t work, but that’s mostly true even for other Office alternatives, such as OpenOffice. If you need Word or Excel macros, you pretty much forced to stick with Microsoft.

I suppose, in the scheme of things, Apple could open source a new macro and Track Changes capability. It would allow third parties to latch on to these features, but Microsoft will stick with a proprietary solution, so it remains a non-starter. I also doubt that Microsoft would license Office’s macro capability to Apple.

Of course, Pages doesn’t necessarily have to be 100% compatible with Office. There are enough people who will survive partial compatibility, particularly in bringing older documents into Pages and, of course, Numbers. With the iWork apps also available in iOS versions for the iPhone and iPad, Apple has the opportunity to build market share with customers who are able to leave Word, or have opted never to use a Microsoft product. There are tens of millions of customers who would welcome Pages and the rest of the iWork apps.

So the question is how does Apple expand iWork with a ’12 or ’13 edition. I suppose more page layout capabilities could be added for those who have yet to embrace Adobe InDesign or QuarkXPress, though Apple isn’t going to want to play in the high-end publishing arena. That market is already saturated with existing players.

But enhancing the ability to create sophisticated documents, improving mail merge capabilities and making iWork a more compatible with Office — except for macros — would possibly help boost sales. Considering the low price of admission, maybe Apple should also consider offering iWork free on new Macs, but I can see where a decision of that sort could cause problems with Apple’s relationship with Microsoft.

Yes, they compete. But Apple has kept iWork promotion strictly low-key. The apps are cheap, available for download from the OS X and iOS App Stores, but Apple still sells Office online and through their retail outlets. Bear in mind that Office is still a standard in many offices, and I do not think Apple is wants Microsoft to discontinue the Mac version of the suite.

Yes, I suppose it’s somewhat disconcerting to see Microsoft essentially reneging on the promise to make Office 2011 fully compatible with Lion — and little has been said about Mountain Lion. Other than Outlook 2011, none of the Office apps support the MacBook Pro with Retina display, meaning everything on your display seems less sharp than, say, iWork.

Is it possible Apple hasn’t upgraded iWork because they only want to enter Microsoft’s turf on the low end? That’s a really good question, and I wouldn’t expect Apple to shy away from a fight. It may also be possible that a major new upgrade to iWork is even now under development, and we’ll see it this fall or early in 2013.

Since I do not pretend to know or understand Apple’s priorities, I can just hope for a better iWork in the near future. Remember there is an iOS version, so it is highly unlikely Apple wants to abandon the suite. But how it may improve going forward is anyone’s guess, and it’s not as if the blogosphere is getting worked up over it.

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9 Responses to “iWork: Long in the Tooth”

  1. dfs says:

    Well, here’s one way in which iWork is most definitely in need of improvement. I manage a Web site with a heavy text content. Contributors frequently send me copy, almost always created on Word, and I have to transform their text into html content. This turns out to be surprisingly hard to do. Yes, Word has an Export as HTML feature, but what it produces can scarcely called clean code (such as Adobe Dreamweaver, for all its many faults, does produce) because it’s so loaded with proprietary MS code which I suspect is intended to make Web pages perform better on Explorer than on other browsers. But if you think that’s about as ethical as a butcher putting his thumb on the scales, what Pages does is considerably worse and even more self-serving for corporate interests. Pages has no Export as HTML feature at all! It used to have an Export feature tightly linked to iWeb, the Web publication part of Mobile Me. Now that iWeb is history, in the current version that feature has been replaced by Create an ePub Document one. Again, the Save As feature is so tightly tied into another Apple technology that it’s useless for anything else. I’m surprised that I’ve never seen any complaint about this in reviews of iWork in the tech press. Personally, I think it’s a lousy way to treat customers.

  2. David Moon-Wainwright says:

    I need a layers palette in the Inspector so I can select objects underneath others. Freehand file import would be a real kick in Adobe’s butt. Basic blending modes between objects or layers would also be really helpful. Would it be so hard to give pages the same picture adjustment controls that iPhoto has? It isn’t always best to import things into iPhoto first! Mask tool is clunky, needs work. Alpha is great.
    Can text be set to combine with a graphic element so that it could form a cut out effect? An auto booklet preset? True kerning? Stretching text graphically?

  3. Walt77 says:

    They need to add 1. The ability to print selected text, 2. The ability to reassign keyboard shortcuts, 3. “Save As”

    • @Walt77, Save As exists as an optional keystroke in iWork and other Mountain Lion-savvy apps. It’s not your father’s Save As, but it works if you recognize the limitations (the source document retains whatever changes you’ve made to it ahead of the Save As).


  4. bcsaxman says:

    I use Pages quite a bit, now that I’ve upgraded to a Macboook Pro & it’s just cheaper to get iWork than MSOffice. If it weren’t for the cost savings though, and the incredible bloat in the latest Mac version of Office, I wouldn’t be using Pages, or Numbers.

    The problem is those programs are too interested in getting you to do what they want, instead of what you want. My biggest issue is with saving. If I want to save all my documents as .doc files, why do I also have to have .page files cluttering up the drive too? The short answer is I can’t work on a .doc file in Pages – for some stupid reason, I can save in that format (a process that has way too many steps, btw) but can’t work on the file later. It has to be in .pages to be worked on in Pages. Even MS let you work on .txt, or .wps, or whatever in Word! I’m sure it has something to do with iCloud & auto saving & wtf-ever … and that’s fine if you want to work that way. But if you don’t, there should be a way to default the program to save where you want, in the format you want, and be able to work on said formatted file later without trouble or hoops.

    It doesn’t just end with saving, however I don’t want to make this a long drawn-out rant. I’m sure anyone who’s used Pages knows the frustration of dealing with it’s ‘preferences’ in formatting, spacing, fonts & font sizes … it really never seems to end, the number of big & small ways this program gets in the way of smooth workflow.

    Apple, I love your stuff generally. And yes, I started buying specifically BECAUSE they were the simpler technology to use (‘Computers for the rest of us’ wasn’t just marketing shtick afaic). But lately you seem to be building computers/hardware & especially software for … Apple. Please, continue to offer the latest & creates ways you think will skin the cat better, but let those of us who can skin it just fine without your ‘help’ do so without impediment.

  5. Michael says:

    Rumor has it that MS is working on Open XML compliance for Office 2013 and it’s online web apps. If Apple would also support Open XML, then users might actually have a long dreamed of true standard for cross-platform document generation and collaboration. iWorks current export to Office is weak, and the more complex the file, the worse the conversion. Then Office can’t even maintain compliance between DOC, DOCX, Windows, and Mac versions.

    Wouldn’t it be great to have a file standard that works and looks the same whether you’re using iWork, Office, OpenOffice, NeoOffice, LiberOffice, or any other document creation suite? One can dream I guess.

  6. erileykc says:

    One substantial benefit Apple could bring to long time Mac users is an improved capability across all of the iWork apps to open old Clarisworks and Appleworks docs. This is very hit and miss depending on the age and format of those legacy docs while that was one of the feature’s Apple touted early on in iWork.

  7. Tim says:

    I would also enjoy being able to open one of the applications and not have it start with either a new document or a template gallery. Whenever I open an existing document, it automatically also opens one of the aforementioned and gets in my way. I’d love have an “opens with nothing” option.

  8. Carrington says:

    It’s funny that although it was released in January 09, Keynote still, for the most part, kicks the pants off of PowerPoint. I have yet to meet a presenter competent with both that doesn’t choose Keynote. That said, it too could use an update. Smart forms would be great as well as a more compatible export to PowerPoint. The conversion process is atrocious and with many 2.0 sites and apps only supporting ppt or pptx files, the conversion is necessary. I’d also love to see linking media instead of embedding inside the .key file. Presentations quickly get enormous with even a few minutes of HD video. Would be nice to link to the file instead of incorporating. Smart forms, word art, etc. would be a nice addition as well as a more robust styling option – much like the style toolbox for Pages.

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