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Pages Versus Word: Choices, Choices and More Choices

Apple’s decision to release iWork free with the purchase of a new Mac, iPhone or iPad surely had its impact on Microsoft. After existing in the world of rumors for several years, Office for iPad was finally released last week. It’s just the basic three: Word, Excel and PowerPoint. Microsoft made no effort to provide a version of Outlook on the iPad, and, after using the Mac version — or trying to — that makes perfect sense.

Certainly the demand seems to be there, or was. After a few days at the top of the Mac App Store’s free apps and among the top paid apps — for Office 365 subscriptions ordered within one of the apps — it has declined to what may be a more realistic level. Perhaps it was all about the early adopters.

Meantime, Apple continues to push iWork updates to restore lost features. Tuesday’s Pages update, for example, enhanced AppleScript support and added a handful of new features. This and previous updates to the suite begin to address concerns that iWork ’09 is the more powerful suite. The bill of materials also included improved compatibility with Microsoft Office.

Apple did promise to restore features as time goes by and add new ones, and that promise is being kept. Perhaps the arrival of Office for the iPad helped energize that decision, or maybe the iWork update was just ready for release.

But the big decision is which app suite you should use. Certainly the fact that iWork is now free for many users, except those without new hardware who never had a prior version, makes it a compelling acquisition. In contrast, Office for the iPad is free if you only want to open and read documents. When you need to create or edit documents, you need an Office 365 subscription. Most home users will consider Home Premium, at $9.99 per month or $99.99 per year. You get user licenses for five PCs or Macs and five iPads or Windows tablets.

Indeed, I suspect small business users might want to consider Home Premium if they want to stick with Microsoft. But remember you must pay and continue paying, year after year. Yes, you’ll get updates free, plus 20GB OneDrive storage and 60 Skype calling minutes. So if you actually have more than one user, the price begins to make sense.

On the other hand, how many Mac users need Word anymore? I started using Word in the early days in the late 1980s, and observed its ups and downs. I remember Word 6 back in the mid-90s, which delivered the dark, depressing look and feel of Windows and pathetic performance on a Mac app. After that debacle, Microsoft promised better Mac support, and mostly delivered. But the latest Office, version 2011, still doesn’t fully support some of Mavericks features, such as Auto Save and Version. One has hopes for the 2014 version, expected later this year.

Maybe Microsoft will even make Outlook usable.

Certainly, Word is a mainstay among writers and publishers. Recently I helped a colleague edit a large book. It was written in Word and had contributors who also used Windows, so I opted not to be the odd one out.

But Pages is quite capable of offering decent Word compatibility, including the mission critical Track Changes feature that lets you keep tabs on who edited what. But is the expected feature set of Word sufficient to make it the superior app? The fact is that most users probably don’t use them, or even know about them.

What’s more, Pages is not the only Word alternative on the Mac platform. Mellel, the product of a small software company in Israel, advertisers itself as “the word processor of choice for scholars, writers and long document writing…” because of its robust set of document creation tools. Nisus Writer Pro also offers an extensive range of document formatting capabilities, including mail merge. There’s even a slimmed version, Nisus Writer Express, which also offers a pretty wide range of features. Both promise superior search capabilities. Mariner Write is part of a suite of Office alternatives that include Mariner Calc, a spreadsheet app.

And a number of businesses have settled on Google Docs, which uses Google Drive for document sharing. I haven’t begun to consider the free Office alternatives such as Apache OpenOffice, which promises a high level of compatibility with Microsoft Office. There are no licenses to worry about. Just launch and use. What’s more, both are compatible with the Mac, PC and even Linux; the latter is something even Microsoft cannot match.

In fairness, OpenOffice comes across as a somewhat clumsy port that doesn’t always feel like a Mac app, which may be important for users unless free is the overriding consideration, or just avoiding anything from Microsoft.

While Office for the iPad has garnered favorable reviews, and may be the app of choice if you’re already using the Mac or PC versions, particularly if you have an Office 365 account, Microsoft is confronting a crowded office suite marketplace.

At one time, using Office was essential in the business world, and many people used Office at home to be compatible. But the delay in releasing Office for the iPad, and the fact that it’s been several years since Office for the Mac had a major upgrade, may be losses from which Microsoft cannot easily recover.