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iWork: Long in the Tooth

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.