Mac users angry about Apple's iWork redesign have few options

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Credit: Robert Couse-Baker via Flickr

Apple's massive overhaul of its iWork apps has backfired on the company, with potentially thousands of longtime iWork users complaining that Apple removed key features, broke automated actions and scripts, and caused a wide range of document and project templates to disappear into the ether. Many users have also taken issue with the revamped user interface that does away with a palette known as the Inspector that has been a staple of Apple's iWork and iLife apps for nearly a decade in favor a context-sensitive sidebar that matches the web-based iWork for iCloud beta apps.

The discussion of Apple's motivations has even sparked arguments about whether or not Apple continues to value longtime Mac and iWork users. That question has reared its head in several Apple decisions over the past few years, beginning with Apple's decision to focus its annual Worldwide Developers Conference solely on iOS in 2010 and following with the cancelation of the the Xserve - the company's rack mounted enterprise server product -- a few months later. The launch of Final Cut Pro X garnered very similar responses, and even the redesign of iOS 7 has been controversial.

Now, many longtime users are considering other options for Mac productivity apps. For some, it's a question of genuine need for features or functionality. For others, it's a protest against Apple's heavy-handed decision. If you fall into either camp or you're just wondering about the options to iWork, there are good alternatives -- but unlike the many alternatives for iOS users, there are only a few for Mac users.

Microsoft Office

Apple took some jabs at Microsoft during last week's event, most notably over $99/year (or $10/month) cost of Office 365, which grants access to cloud-based versions of Office, the ability to install the current Office versions on multiple Macs and PCs, and access to the anemic Microsoft Office for iPhone. Mac users can also purchase Office with a traditional single license starting at $140 for the Home and Student version, which includes just Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, or shell out $220 for the Home and Business edition, which also includes Outlook for Mac.

That's a pricey alternative, but it has advantages. It ensures file compatibility with Office for Windows and allows users to shift more easily between working on a Mac and PC than when using iWork or other alternatives. Scripting and automation features including macros are also supported in the recent Office for Mac releases.

That doesn't mean Office is the best choice, however. There are often feature-parity issues between the Mac and Windows versions of Office. Whole apps -- OneNote, Access, Publisher -- are unavailable to Mac users, and some features in the available apps are absent. Outlook, in particular, lacks some of the collaboration features available to Windows users.

It's also worth mentioning that simply jumping on board with Microsoft offers no more guarantees for the future than sticking with Apple and iWork. When Microsoft released Office for 2008, it came without macro and VBA support that had been included in previous releases (though they were restored in the more recent Office for Mac 2011 release).

OpenOffice variants

OpenOffice is a longstanding open source alternative to Office. Developed initially by Sun and later maintained by Oracle, OpenOffice has split into several different versions, all available for Mac:

  • Apache OpenOffice --  When Oracle ceased development of OpenOffice in mid-2011, it contributed the trademarks and Oracle-owned code to the Apache Software Foundation, which rebranded it as Apache OpenOffice. The first version under this name was released in 2012. Like previous OpenOffice iterations, this one focuses on providing a complete set of functionality including including word processor, spreadsheet, presentation, database, vector graphics editing, and equation editing. One concern about Apache OpenOffice is that the project doesn't have a predictable release schedule for major updates or patches.
  • LibreOffice is a fork of the original OpenOffice project created by The Document Foundation, which was formed by members of OpenOffice community that left the OpenOffice project in 2010 due to concerns about the management and future of the project. As such, it offers a very similar set of component apps and functionality. LibreOffice also includes support for creating macros and scripts. Unlike Apache OpenOffice, LibreOffice uses a time-based release structure that ensures that the open source code is updated in a regular and timely manner with minor patches released each month. This offers a good deal more stability to the solution as a whole. 
  • NeoOffice is an offshoot of the original OpenOffice project. It was released in 2003 before an official release of OpenOffice was available for OS X. Because it is designed specifically for Mac users, NeoOffice has the most Apple-like feel of any OpenOffice variant and includes several Mac-specific features like support for full screen views, the iLife media browser, and the Versions feature that allows Mac users to view previous iterations on a document and to restore them. NeoOffice has full support for Mavericks and supports the core functionality of Office or iWork.

Mariner Software

Mariner has been developing Mac software for years. Users looking for alternatives to iWork might check out MarinerWrite  (word processing) and MarinerCalc (spreadsheet). The company also offers several specialized writing tools for tasks like script and screenplay development, novel writing and character development, and journaling/blogging. Some of its products also offer iOS and Windows equivalents.

As most of Mariner's products are longstanding Mac-first solutions, they embody many Apple-inspired design traits, including a focus on streamlined simplicity. The products can work well for many users, but they have some downsides, particularly when it comes to interoperating with Office files. Although MarinerWrite can open Word documents, it cannot create them, though users can save documents as RTF files. MarinerCalc fares better, and can open and save Excel and CSV files, but it doesn't offer complete across the board support for Excel (or Numbers) functions.

Google Docs and Mac App Store apps

Google Docs is available on Macs as it is on any other computer -- through a web browser.

For Mac users that want a more desktop-like environment, however, there are solutions in the Mac App Store that allow you to create, edit, share and collaborate on documents from an interface that is more Mac-like. Two options are RocketDocs and iDocs. Although both apps provide a more desktop-like feel, the functionality that they deliver is very similar to working with the typical Google Docs or Drive interface. If you're already a Google Docs fan, these are nice additions but they generally don't deliver an experience comparable to iWork or any of the other apps discussed in this article.

What's your best bet?

In the end the best alternative to both iWork and Office is probably NeoOffice. It's well maintained, feature-complete, Mavericks-ready, has decent compatibility with files and formatting, and it is a Mac-specific product that conforms to most of Apple's user interface guidance. At the same time, the engineers maintaining it admit in their FAQ that it isn't the right tool for everyone. Their best recommendation for users that need something certain to rely on? Stick with iWork or go with Microsoft Office. 

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