Apple updates iWork for business users, but doesn't match the competition

Keynote on the iPad used for a presentation. Credit: Grant Wickes via Flickr

Apple released updates to its iWork suite for both Macs and iOS devices this week. iWork is often seen as Apple's version of Office and includes word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation apps (known as Pages, Numbers, and Keynote respectively). Apple introduced the Mac edition of iWork in 2005. The company released iOS versions of all three apps in 2010 along with the original iPad.

The desktop iWork apps include compatibility with Microsoft Office file types and key Office features. They retail for $19.99 each via Apple's Mac App Store - a significant savings over Office for Mac which starts at $119.95 for a single user license of Office for Mac Home and Student edition and goes up to $199.95 for a single license of the Home and Business edition that includes Outlook for Mac.

Although iWork includes compatibility with Office file types, the apps have a decidedly Apple feel to them and include some distinct features. Pages, for example, functions as both a word processing app and a page layout tool with capabilities similar to Adobe's InDesign. Similarly, Numbers goes beyond the typical grid and sheets of Excel and lets users create files that are much more like page layouts or interactive web apps while still offering solid import/export options and the majority of Excel functions. 

One of the most impressive features in Pages for Mac is its seamless integration with Word's change-tracking and commenting features. Pages not only displays all changes and comments by multiple users when opening a Word document, it also makes it easy for iWork users to accept or reject changes, add comments, and it fully tracks their changes as well - all of which are preserved when the file is saved and later opened using Word.

The same hasn't be universally true of iWork for iOS. Working with Office documents in the iOS apps requires importing them as native files, a process which has historically stripped some functionality - comments, change history, formatting and some visual elements. The files also need to exported after changes are made for others to use them. (Even iWork for Mac documents are subject to some of these issues.)

That's starting to change with this release.

The big feature addition is support for tracking changes in Pages. Mobile support for tracking changes in Word documents had been a major gap in all Office-style apps for iOS devices until earlier this year when both Bytesquared and Quickoffice added the functionality to their iPad apps. Bytesquared added the capability to its iPhone app as well. 

Both offer somewhat better display of changes over Pages, and Quickoffice boasts full comment support. They also offer easier share and sync capabilities via a range of cloud storage solutions including Box, Dropbox, and Google Docs. Their overall interfaces also tend to be more Office-inspired and less Apple-like than the iWork apps. As such, it's easy to argue that they are better business solutions.

That said, the iWork apps are extremely popular. They remain some the most successful commercial apps in the iOS App Store -- all three currently rank in the top 20 of the most popular paid apps and the top 30 of the highest grossing apps. For many users, particularly those who are also iWork for Mac users, the iWork apps simply offer a better overall experience while meeting their needs. That makes this release significant for individual users and businesses that support iOS devices.

Apple's update to iWork for Mac is minor and simply adds support for the updated iOS apps. That this is such a minor update combined with the fact that Apple hasn't released a major revision of desktop iWork apps since 2009 has raised the thought that Apple may be reconsidering its commitment to iWork for Mac. In the intervening four years, Apple has made only incremental changes to the iWork apps, the most significant update being support for iCloud document storage and sync.

It seems unlikely that Apple is planning to shutter the suite of apps given the effort the company has put into developing iWork for both Macs and iOS devices and the effort to integrate them with iCloud. A more logical interpretation of the events is that Apple has focused iWork development resources on the iOS apps in order to bring them up to feature parity with their Mac counterparts - and their iOS competition - as quickly as possible. Although iWork for Mac hasn't received a major update in nearly four years, it's feature set is robust and meets the needs of its users. It really hasn't been left behind compared to the features in other similar products including Office.

There have also been rumors that Apple is planning to unveil a web-based version of iWork that would be offered through iCloud, which could also explain the lack of a major revision. Those rumors have some credibility given the iWork.com collaboration service that Apple launched as a public beta with the initial iWork '09 release (the service was shut down this summer, though much of its functionality is included in iCloud).

All in all, this week's updates are big news for iWork fans and iOS business users. They show that Apple isn't going to rest on its laurels when it comes to ensuring Mac and iOS users have access to a competitive Apple-branded, and therefore Apple controlled, productivity suite. Given Microsoft's moves with Office on Windows RT, the fact that Google now owns Quickoffice, and that RIM owns the multi-platform Documents to Go suite, it's shrewd and potentially critical for Apple to ensure business users of its products are supported.

Here's the full list of changes from Apple's release documentation:

In this release Pages for iOS is updated for improved compatibility with Microsoft Word and Pages for Mac.

  • Use Change Tracking to track changes to body text in a document
  • Accept and reject individual changes as you review a document
  • Import Pages and Microsoft Word documents with change tracking and continue to track changes to body text
  • Preserve tracked changes in documents exported in Microsoft Word or Pages format
  • Preserve calculations in tables when importing from and exporting to Pages for Mac
  • Add reflections to shapes
  • Lock and unlock objects

In this release Numbers for iOS is updated for improved compatibility with Microsoft Excel and Numbers for Mac.

  • Hide and unhide rows and columns
  • Import and export Numbers for Mac spreadsheets with filters, and turn filters on and off
  • Preserve rich text in tables when importing and exporting
  • Add reflections to shapes
  • Lock and unlock objects

In this release Keynote for iOS is updated for improved compatibility with Microsoft PowerPoint and Keynote for Mac.

  • Import and export all Microsoft PowerPoint and Keynote for Mac slide sizes
  • Import and export presentation themes, complete with master slides and preset styles
  • Play back all Keynote action builds including Move, Rotate, Scale, and Opacity
  • Add new slide transitions including Shimmer and Sparkle
  • Preserve calculations in tables when importing from and exporting to Keynote for Mac
  • Add reflections to shapes
  • New print layouts include options to print with presenter notes, with builds, and without backgrounds
  • Lock and unlock objects
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