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Apple’s stripped-down iWork suite is free, but there's a cost

Apple’s stripped-down iWork suite is free, but there's a cost


Released last week, the new version sacrifices power for compatibility

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iWork (apple stock)
iWork (apple stock)

Apple's iWork productivity suite has never been a world beater. Pitted against the near-omnipresent Microsoft Office and Google’s free web-based solutions and only available on Apple products, iWork's market share pales in comparison to its competitors’. Last week the company made Pages, Keynote, and Numbers free for all existing users, as well as for all new owners of Mac and iOS devices, in a move that was seen by many as an attack on established industry leaders. The new apps feature a fresh layout, iCloud syncing, collaborative editing, and many more oft-requested features. However, a number of Apple watchers and users are complaining that the reworked apps aren’t as feature-rich as their predecessors.

Detractors says the new Pages is "severely crippled"

Much of the vitriol is aimed at the new Pages for OS X, Apple's word processor, which lost many features that "power users" were accustomed to. Pierre Igot, who runs the respected Betalogue blog and penned a much-shared series of articles on the changes to Pages, tells The Verge the latest version is "severely crippled." A large source of complaints is a refreshed, "simplified" aesthetic, which leaves users with just a few options in the app's toolbar and removes the customization features that were previously present. The text formatting and settings functions have been shifted from the toolbar to a large, hideable sidebar. "Apple eliminated the Styles drawer, and so this new sidebar also replaces that. As a replacement it’s awful." For sure, it’s a huge interface change that’ll take some getting used to, but interface changes pale in comparison to the surprisingly long list of feature omissions.

Vertical rulers, certain templates, custom autocorrects, duplicate pages, outline views, and more are all missing from the new Pages; the format bar, presenter display options, and many animations and transitions have disappeared from Keynote, and users are similarly upset with a Numbers interface and feature set that focuses on aesthetics over productivity. "People who already use iWork in a serious fashion are being sacrificed in the (vain) hope of recruiting a new set of users," says Igot, "it's very sad and discouraging." Also ruffling feathers is reduced support across the board for AppleScript, an Apple tool that allows you to automate actions throughout OS X and its applications. While unlikely to be missed by many, AppleScript is widely utilized by advanced users like Igot to save time.

Apple has a history of slowly but surely improving its pro apps

There are comparisons to be drawn between the reworked iWork suite and Final Cut Pro X, the 2011 refresh of Apple's professional video-editing software. With the move to X, Apple completely reworked the app's interface and functionality, producing something that was more akin to its consumer-friendly iMovie software than a professional editing tool and upsetting pro users in the process. Over time, Apple has slowly added missing functionality back into Final Cut Pro X, and some have suggested the company will take the same approach here. Only Apple knows if that will happen or not.

Another major issue is compatibility between the new iWork and iWork ‘09. Apple has a long list of changes and errors that will occur when importing and exporting documents. While the compatibility issues won't affect, for example, those who use Pages as a simple writing tool, they will pose problems for anyone attempting to move rich documents created in Pages '09 to the latest version. There are also problems with backwards compatibility: in some cases, almost as soon as you open a document in one of the new apps, it will no longer work in the iWork ‘09 version of the app. There are steps you can take to revert the file and restore compatibility, but they won’t be immediately obvious to the average user.

For true cross-compatibility, you need feature parity

So why did Apple apparently cast aside the wishes of its most-avid users when rewriting iWork? According to user-experience consultant Nigel Warren, the answer is iOS. Apple introduced iWork for iOS alongside the iPad in 2010, but there have always been compatibility issues when importing complex documents to iOS. "From my experience in designing software, if you’re going to create something that’s truly compatible across platforms, then you really need to have feature parity," Warren tells The Verge. "You just need to make sure that you’re using the same data format … the old versions [of iWork for iOS and OS X] would convert from one to another and couldn’t just operate with the same files. It caused all sorts of problems."

There’s no doubting that with the omission of many unsupported features, Apple now has better feature parity between the Mac, iOS, and all-new web-based versions of its software. But when will those features come back? "I think if anybody’s watched Apple over the years and seen their recent patterns, there have been multiple cases where they’ve done a reboot, and it just takes time to build back to where they were," says Warren. "I use iWork, and it’s painful to lose features ... but I think there’s a lot of people that are reading it as a sign that Apple doesn’t care about pro users anymore, and that seems wrong to me."

Apple has essentially turned iWork for Mac into iWork for iOS

So where does Apple go from here? It’s essentially turned iWork for Mac into iWork for iOS, sacrificing the needs of its pro users in hope of capturing the attention of the millions of iOS and Mac users that don't currently use iWork. In the meantime, Apple is giving new users coming to OS X from iOS an entirely free and cross-compatible productivity suite, which by all accounts will probably suffice for the average user. It’s also ensured that existing users who upgrade their apps will be able to continue using the ‘09 version by automatically keeping a copy of it in a backup folder. Of course, new converts to OS X and those who have yet to try iWork won’t have the benefit of a full-featured suite, as only the latest version is available from the Mac App Store.

Is that an ideal situation? Clearly not. iWork users were hoping for a powerful new app, and now must choose to update to an app that doesn’t fulfill their needs or continue with an almost-five-year-old app. Explaining his decision to stick with iWork ‘09, Igot evokes Steve Jobs’ famous "cars and trucks" analogy, noting that "there is simply no way that you can force truck drivers to use the same controls as car drivers — truck drivers have unique needs that require a different system."

Apple’s decision to risk upsetting established users when refreshing its software is certainly a gamble, but in the long run it could turn out to be the right choice. It’ll take some time to restore lost functionality and turn the iWork suite into a true Office and Google Docs competitor, but Apple has at least put all of its devices on level footing. The company can now take its time to improve the functionality of its iWork suite, while existing users can use iWork ‘09 just as they have done for the past four years and switch over when the features they care about come back. Once Apple adds key features back into iWork, says Warren, "they’ll be in a stronger position, because they’ll be there with cross-compatibility." And in the meantime? "I’ll probably just keep on using the old version."