Apple's new iWork apps are great, but iCloud sharing has some serious flaws

Apple's Eddy Cue introduces updates to iWork at the October 2013 Apple event. Credit: Macworld/TechHive

When Apple first introduced its iWork apps, they were naturally and inevitably compared to Microsoft Office and often found to be lacking in some key features, or in compatibility with Office features or file format. Although Apple has rectified many of those issues and built pretty incredible compatibility with important business features like tracking changes in documents, iWork is still viewed as a personal tool for elementary school students and soccer moms rather than as a solid option for accomplishing business tasks.

Apple had a chance to get iWork viewed as a more capable solution when it released the iOS version of the apps alongside the iPad three and half years ago. The initial iOS releases of the three apps -- Pages, Numbers, and Keynote -- didn't manage to tick all the boxes that mobile users needed. The iOS apps suffered from a lack of consistency with their Mac counterparts in terms of supported features, offered very limited file format options, and couldn't open and save Office files without converting them into iWork files.

At the time, iWork for iOS was actually hailed as proof that the iPad couldn't succeed in the business world without a mobile version of Microsoft Office. Those predictions turned out to be grossly inaccurate, but part of the iPad's success in business is thanks to the developers that committed to create Office alternatives for the tablet that bested iWorks capability. Today there are over a dozen alternative options that support key Office functionality and integration options.

Earlier this year, Apple launched a beta version of iWork for iCloud, a free service aimed at bringing iWork into the sphere populated by Office 365 and Google Docs. iWork for iCloud, which delivers a look and feel virtually identical to iWork for Mac, was again found to be lacking compared to the competition particularly when it came to collaboration and the ability for multiple users to work on a document simultaneously.

iWork goes free and gets a massive update

During yesterday's Apple event, Apple's senior vice president of Internet Software and Services Eddy Cue showed off a completely redesigned suite of iWork apps for Macs, iOS devices, and iCloud,and announced that the apps (along with Apple's new desktop OS Mavericks and Apple's iLife apps) would be available free of charge. Cue pointed to collaboration as the largest feature request from users of the beta service and then showed off the suite's new web-based collaboration capabilities.

Collaboration support and an unbeatable price (free) are only part of the iWork story this week, however. The redesigned iOS apps deliver virtually every feature of their desktop or cloud counterparts. They also sport a user interface that matches their desktop cousins and enables an incredibly intuitive and seamless experience shifting between Mac, iPad, iPhone, and a web browser running on both a Mac and Windows.

Having put these apps through their paces, I have to say that Apple has raised the bar immensely in terms of mobile productivity with them. Pages, which I have rarely used on an iOS device because of its limitations and clunky interface, is likely to become my go-to app for writing or editing documents -- most of which will be Word documents with features like track changes and comments enabled.

iCloud and collaboration -- Apple's not quite there yet

While I'm giving Apple praise for what the company has accomplished with iWork for iOS, I'm not as enthusiastic about iWork for iCloud. Although the user experience of iWork through a browser is laudable, there are some major red flags that Apple has got to address even if the company isn't directly pitching iWork for iCloud as a complete Office 365 or Google Docs replacement for business or education.

The biggest red flag is the lack of security and privacy. The first time your share a document, spreadsheet, or presentation using iCloud, you get a message warning you that anyone who has the URL of your shared content has the ability to edit it using a web browser. That person can even remain anonymous because iCloud doesn't require someone to log in using their iCloud account to view or edit a document. The message also reminds you that when a someone updates your files in a browser, their changes will be synced to your Macs and/or iOS devices.

iWork does offer some document protection capabilities including the ability to set a password on a file. The unfortunate and rather surprising issue with such features is that they aren't compatible with iCloud sharing. They only function if you give the file to a fellow Mac or iOS device user by email, AirDrop, a file share, or a non-Apple cloud service like Box, Dropbox, or Google Drive.

Password protecting a file isn't the only important feature that's incompatible with iCloud sharing. The track changes feature in Pages, which offers seamless compatibility with track changes in Word and is a key business and collaboration feature, must also be disabled if you want to share a document through iCloud. This is almost mind-boggling when you consider that track changes exists specifically to support multiple users editing a single document.

Even without these issues, which Apple will hopefully resolve, iCloud sharing presents some concerns for business and IT. As with any consumer cloud service, iCloud makes it easy for business documents to leave the corporate network. Till now that has been an issue around syncing data with iCloud, a task that is pretty much performed for a single individual to have access to that data on all of his or her devices -- a situation that IT and security pros want to avoid, but somewhat limited as far as potential data leakage. Adding the possibility of sharing and collaborating through iCloud makes data leaks a bigger concern.

As far as the real-time editing that Apple showed off during the event goes, it does seem to function fairly well -- albeit with more lag time syncing changes than was shown during Apple's demo. It also works across the various versions of iWork. If someone is editing a document that you shared via a web browser and you're using the Mac app, the changes still function the same way. If the changes conflict -- such as two people changing the same paragraph at the same time -- the owner of the document will see a dialog to select which changes to keep.

Although it would be nice to see Apple truly enter the business collaboration space, perhaps with a business version of iCloud that can be managed and brought in line with an organization's security needs as Microsoft and Google offer, I doubt Apple will go down that path. iWork for iCloud will probably remain a more consumer-oriented solution even though iWork for iOS is now a serious competitor in the mobile productivity space.

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