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Apple's New iWork: 3 Steps Forward, 1 Step Back

By Chris Maxcer MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
Oct 31, 2013 5:00 AM PT

Real updates to Apple's iWork suite of apps -- Pages, Numbers and Keynote -- have been a long time coming, so when Apple updated the suite with a free upgrade that plays well with iOS 7 and with Web browsers, plenty of users jumped into the new version without looking. Unfortunately, a good many found they had leapt into a shallow pool full of sharp rocks.

Apple's New iWork: 3 Steps Forward, 1 Step Back

Feature parity with iWork '09 is not one-to-one with the new iWork, and users are complaining in all sorts of places online. In one discussion thread on the Apple Support Communities pages, there are nearly 400 posts and more than 25,000 views on a question asking why Apple got rid of so many useful features in the new Pages -- and it then goes on to list them in excruciating crowdsourced detail.

Personally, despite typing words most days of the year, I've always had a love-hate relationship with Pages, as well as with Numbers and Keynote. Mostly Pages, though. Microsoft Word is a bloated mess of features, ribbons, toolbars and all sorts of distracting crud, and while Pages has always been leaner in its set of features, it's bloated in that there is far too much wasted white space that is very difficult to pare down -- at least, in my opinion.

I want lean and mean where almost nothing gets in the way of the words. When I'm making posters designed to help find a lost cat, yeah, templates and such are nice -- but that's just me.

The point is, any sort of power user has all sorts of personal needs around software applications and, more importantly, all sorts of habits and preferences. Consequently, mass upgrades have a tendency to irritate some of the most important users. If Apple is willing to anger and disappoint its power users, though, what's the better play here? Who's the new user?

Apple's New 'More Important' Users

Unfortunately, I see two realistic possible reasons for Apple's iWork upgrade debacle: 1) Apple dropped the ball and lost features by accident and changed things in ways that were dumb because it didn't put enough resources or time into the upgrade and new version; or 2) Apple reset iWork on purpose for a greater good.

While reason No. 1 is possible, I have a hard time believing it. Apple has -- compared to most technology companies -- nearly unlimited resources. Billions in the bank and plenty of time between upgrades. If Apple can expend resources to shave thickness in 1/100th of a millimeter increments off the iPad to create the iPad Air, the company sure as heck ought to be able to figure out a word processing application.

That means it was on purpose. Apple reset iWork with a reasonable -- but not complete -- set of features that most of the world would need and likely use. More importantly, it still is a suite of applications that creates files that can be shared seamlessly between iOS devices, Macs and Web browsers -- as well as edited collaboratively on the fly via iCloud. The goal is to take iWork to the masses.

More to the point, I think Apple is paying attention to the education market in a whole new way, and while iWork will handle the needs of many individuals and business users -- who also like free -- Apple is really resetting iWork so that it's ready to rock and roll for students.

94 Percent of the Education Tablet Market

In Apple's earnings call with investors earlier this week, CEO Tim Cook said the iPad's educational market share is "unheard of," and at 94 percent, he's right. That's astounding. Especially with all the cheap competition trying to get in -- and when most of the PCs in education these days are still Windows-based.

If iWork is free and upgrades are free, Apple just removed a hindrance for IT management and cost at schools -- and for students at home. At the same time, if these apps can be used via iCloud for free via Web browsers, kids can work anywhere on their reports and projects, even if they don't have Macs or iPads at home.

And they can do it collaboratively. In the school districts I'm aware of, collaboration and group projects seem to be on the rise. If student work shifts away from Microsoft Word and PowerPoint toward iWork and Apple, wow -- this would be a major coup for Apple.

Forget being "compatible" with PowerPoint. What if a majority of kids created their presentations first on Keynote instead of PowerPoint? That's a huge mindshare shift, and it's not just about battling Microsoft in an office suite battle fought on tablets -- it marginalizes Android as an OS in schools, too.

Side Effect of Bigger Goals

If more people can seamlessly use iWork everywhere, that's a good thing. However, I see the iWork messiness as a Apple choosing to take three steps forward and one step back while it marches toward a different goal.

I remain baffled as to how a company that can compress magic into tiny devices and ship it all over the world still can't get word processing right.

MacNewsWorld columnist Chris Maxcer has been writing about the tech industry since the birth of the email newsletter, and he still remembers the clacking Mac keyboards from high school -- Apple's seed-planting strategy at work. While he enjoys elegant gear and sublime tech, there's something to be said for turning it all off -- or most of it -- to go outside. To catch him, take a "firstnamelastname" guess at WickedCoolBite.com.

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