iWork for iCloud Beta: Apple’s Shot at Making iWork a Productivity Standard

We all expected to see iOS 7 at the WWDC keynote. That one was a given. The next version of OS X was also practically a given, but didn’t seem nearly as anticipated. New Macs were a nice extra, that both weren’t surprising to see but none of us would have been that surprised if they hadn’t been included. A new version of iWork and iLife were hoped for, but again, we’d almost given up hope that Apple would have time for anything besides iOS 7.

But practically no one was expecting that Apple would spend a serious amount of time during the keynote talking about web apps. And yet they did. Apple, the company that almost entirely makes software just for its own devices took the time to show us how great their new iWork for iCloud apps worked in Chrome on Windows 8. iWork has always been seen as a distant runner-up to Microsoft Office, the 900lb gorilla in the room whenever you talk about apps for word processing, presentations, and spreadsheets. The very fact that the iPad doesn’t have Office has been used as an advertisement point for Microsoft’s Surface ads. But we all thought the discussion was long-since beyond Office, and we’ve all learned to get along very well without it, thank you very much.

Apple isn’t in the business of leaving well enough alone, though, and they’re taking their own Office competitor directly to Microsoft’s homefront. If you’ve stuck with Office simply because others won’t be able to preview your files if you use iWork — or if you’ve stayed away since you occasionally need to edit from a PC — here’s why iWork for iCloud just might be the best thing to happen to iWork yet. It’s a bold foray into Microsoft’s territory, just as Microsoft launches its own Office apps on the iPhone.

Apple: The Best Web App Company You Didn’t Know Existed

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It was nearly two years ago when I first was able to try out Apple’s iCloud web apps, during an early (presumably accidental) login before they’d been fully released. I’d tried — on a PC netbook, of all things — to login to iCloud, and there for a half hour was able to try out the apps before the site said it was “Coming Soon” again. The Mail, Contacts, and Calendar apps then were much the same then as they are now: near-perfect copies of their sibling apps on iOS 5. A year later with iOS 6, we got Notes and Reminders added to the fold, apps that again nearly perfectly matched their iPad counterparts, complete with skeuomorphic leather and stitching.

Now, apps that look as nice as Apple’s own iPad apps that ran smoothly in the browser were impressive then, but they’re really still impressive today. Web apps tend to be basic, limited tools, especially when they’re from software giants that use them as a selling point for their native apps (hello, Microsoft). Regardless of your perspective on skeuomorphic design, the iCloud web apps are still some of the nicest looking web apps out there. They’re full-featured, at least compared to their iPad counterparts, they’re slick, and they load surprisingly fast considering how graphically intense they are. They still look like iOS 6 today (if anything, they’re the most skeuomorphic apps in Apple’s lineup now, as is starkly apparent even from their icons), but that’s one thing we’d expect to change before iOS 7′s launch this fall. Either way, they’re very nice web apps that are ad free and full-featured.

The problem is, they’re practically unknown since everyone that has an iCloud account, by extension, has an Apple device with native apps that do the very same thing. They give you a way, say, to see your iPhone notes and reminders on a PC, but somehow I doubt very many people use them for that. iWork in the browser, however, just might change that equation.

Your Apple Apps, Everywhere

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iWork has been the nicest looking office suite for quite some time, with Keynote leading the way in beautiful presentations. It’s never been as powerful as Office — try using Numbers for a statistics class, and you’ll decide that Excel is still worth its price — but then, most of us don’t need all of Office. We need to make documents that look sharp without tons of fuss. Done. We need to keep track of finances and tabulate data, and perhaps turn that into nice charts and more. Done. We need to make presentations that won’t have those watching rolling their eyes? Done (well, if you don’t go overboard).

The iWork apps for OS X and iOS are getting a bit long in the tooth, without a major new version since 2009, but that’s going to be remedied this fall according to the WWDC keynote (and we have no idea what to expect from that upgrade as of yet). But even as-is, the iWork apps actually great. They’re the best Office alternate on the Mac — seriously, you don’t want to be using LibreOffice — and they just cost $19 per app. With App Store licensing, you can run the whole iWork suite on up to 5 Macs in the same household for just $59.97. That’s what Office 365 — Microsoft’s new subscription version of Office — will cost you for 6 months. That starts making iWork look even more enticing.

The traditional argument against iWork that you need Office compatibility to be able to share documents with others isn’t even the best argument. I’ve edited my Microsoft Office files in iWork and shared them in Office-only environments after exporting to Office formats — even in university, where Office is absolutely, religiously required — and had no problem. No, they won’t work for every use case, but they will work for most.

And now, the free iCloud-based iWork web apps take away the problem of only being able to edit your files on a Mac or iOS device. It’s the one little extra that’ll make relying on iWork only a less nerve-wracking proposition.

The iWork Web Apps in Action

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It’s obviously not fair to fully review the iWork for iCloud apps today, as they’re still in beta and aren’t even accessible at the normal iCloud.com (though you’ll find them just a login away at beta.icloud.com). For now, there’s no printing support, no way to share a link to a document with anyone else, no chart and table editing, and no version history, but all of those are promised to be coming in the final release. Even then, there still may be no simultaneous document editing like Office Web Apps and Google Docs offer; Apple hasn’t mentioned that at all.

But then, that’s hardly an issue if you’re just looking for apps to create and edit your own documents, something that iWork for iCloud already excels at. Login, and you’ll see all of your iWork documents that were already synced to iCloud ready to be viewed or edited, with popover hints that are reminiscent of iPhoto for iPad’s help popovers. The overall design is very similar to iWork on the iPad, though with a more subdued interface and no fake wood, canvas, or leather — perhaps indicative of how iWork for iOS will look this fall. Office files are welcome, too, and a drag-and-drop to your browser will get them ready for editing in iWork.

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Dive into each of the apps, and literally everything else you’d expect is there. There’s all the same document templates, picture effects, shapes, backgrounds, and fonts that you’d expect from iWork on an iPad (which, yes, means you can use Zapfino on a PC in your browser). Keynote feels the most full-featured, with all of its slide transitions working perfectly in the browser, even on a PC. Keynote’s long been the app to use if you want the nicest looking presentations, and now you can get the same experience from any computer — even for full-screen presenting.

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Pages, in the same way, is nearly full-featured. You can’t set your page size right now, and you can’t add columns to your document if they’re not already in the template you started with. But, you can add images, give them shadows and boarders like you’d expect in Pages, and move them fluidly around your document, something that’s entirely impossible the Word Web App and Google Docs. You’ll also get great text formatting, again with all the Apple-standard fonts you’d expect.  When it comes time to share your documents, you’ll be able to download them in Pages, Word, or PDF formats, just as on the iPad. And if for some reason you’re editing in two places at once, don’t worry: Pages kept the changes refreshed between different browsers almost instantly in our tests, which means it could work for simultaneous editing with others in the future if Apple wanted to add that.

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Even Numbers, the spreadsheet everyone regards as anemic compared to Excel, manages to shine as a simple yet functional (and rather full-featured) online spreadsheet app. It includes all the user-friendly templates and the page-rather-than-tables focused UI that you’d expect from Numbers, and throws in a very nice new functions pane that makes it easy to find functions and understand what they’re fore as you’re entering them into your spreadsheet. It’s not going to take the world of statistics by storm, but for the rest of us needing to make a budget, it’s still the best spreadsheet out there.

iCloud.com as an App Platform?

Even two years ago, though, iCloud had a tiny bit of iWork: file viewers and exporters. You’ve always been able to see your iWork documents in iCloud.com, and download them in iWork, Office, or PDF formats. The apps, of course, take it to a whole different level, but even the file viewing and exporting was nice.

What’s still missing is a way to access the rest of your iCloud documents from your browser. Hundreds of 3rd party apps are using iCloud to sync their iOS and Mac apps, and yet we users can’t access our files from those apps outside of Apple’s platforms. What would be very nice — and a much stronger affront to cloud services like Dropbox and Microsoft’s Skydrive — would be at least a way to access the files from all of your apps in iCloud.com, perhaps in a similar interface to the old iWork files access in iCloud.

But, what if Apple opened iCloud.com itself as an app platform, letting 3rd party developers make their own apps that could run in the browser alongside Mail, Calendar, and the iWork apps, perhaps using some of the Javascript libraries and more that power Apple’s web apps? That could be a very interesting to make iOS  and OS X apps extend their functionality to the browser, letting us all get all of our data anywhere while staying in Apple’s beautifully walled garden — with a small, web-shaped gap.