Beauty Can Kill the Beast: iWork’s Assault on Microsoft’s Last Stronghold

We were all expecting iWork news on Tuesday. Apple’s Roger Rosner had taken a considerable amount of time at this year’s WWDC to showcase their new iWork web apps and then briefly mentioned that new versions of the native iWork apps would be coming this fall.

What we got instead, though, was the surprising claim that iWork is the best selling suite of mobile productivity applications (which, I suppose, isn’t actually that surprising since “mobile” wouldn’t include Microsoft Office on laptops) followed by the announcement that iWork and iLife apps would all be free with new iOS devices going forward. Combine that with the free online iWork apps in iCloud, and Microsoft Office has the stiffest competition it’s faced in well over a decade.

Google can boast businesses that have gone Google, but Apple has its best shot ever at convincing the rest of us that its beautiful documents, spreadsheets, and presentations apps are more than enough to leave Office Home & Student behind.

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Mobile Decides the Winners

iWork shines on the iPad

iWork shines on the iPad

Microsoft should have had the first-mover advantage with office apps when smartphones took over the world. Office was so thoroughly entrenched in the desktop market, even a semi-decent attempt at mobile Office could have been a huge success. And they have been at it for a long time: Office Mobile for Windows CE (later Windows Mobile, then Windows Phone) has been around since 1996.

And yet, the versions they make today have less formatting options than Evernote’s mobile apps. Office Mobile today literally has almost the exact same feature set on Windows Phone 8, iOS, and Android as it did on my Windows Mobile 5 phone in 2007. It’s almost laughable how basic Office Mobile is today compared to almost any other app.

If not Microsoft, then surely Google should have taken over mobile office work with their Google Docs. But they, too, were rather slow to the game, offering only extremely basic online editing for Google Docs until mid-last year’s introduction of Google Drive for iOS. It’s got most of the basic document/spreadsheet/presentation editing features you’d want, but it’s still not as full-featured as Microsoft Office.

Apple was the only company that decided to make a full-featured mobile-first office suite with its iWork for iOS apps. Introduced alongside the iPad, the iWork apps contained nearly all of the features of iWork for Mac and made it simple to create nicer looking documents, spreadsheets, and presentations than most of us could make with Microsoft Office. At $9.99/app, they were easily affordable, and still along with the iLife apps represent how much more powerful tablet (and phone) apps can be than most people think. iWork for iOS was the no-compromises option: you could get real work done on an iPad with Pages, Numbers, and Keynote, and nothing else.

Killing the King

iWork, now free

iWork, now free

Moving on from the established default app for a task is difficult, though. Pixelmator could attest to the difficulty of usurping Photoshop, but Office is far more established in business and education than Adobe could ever hope its apps would be. OpenOffice only gained any traction — despite its dated interface and uninspiring feature-set — because of its low price of free. Google Docs gained traction — despite being online and having a limited feature-set — because it nailed collaboration (plus, it was free.).

Apple, as its wont to do, chose to compete on quality. It’s hard to get inspired about writing essays and making a budget, but Apple’s iWork demos almost make those tasks look fun. Every other presentation app in an office-type bundle had horrible results (seriously, try them out — it’s bad), but Keynote looked so nice that Microsoft all-but directly copied its templates and transitions in PowerPoint 2010. At the same time, iWork does good enough with importing and exporting Office files that most normal users would never have a problem using iWork in an Office-only environment (yes, in university I wrote essays in Pages, saved them in Word format, and submitted them to in classes that were strictly Word only with no issues). Now, throw in the iWork iCloud apps — web apps that, again, have no compromises and handle graphics and more far better than Google and Microsoft’s online apps — and you can feel secure that you’ll always be able to edit iWork files anywhere, something that was the final worry left for iWork users that needed to use PCs.

iWork sells.

iWork sells really well.

iWork apps shouldn’t have been a hard sale at their price, especially after Microsoft took Office to a subscription model. Actually, they obviously weren’t that hard of a sale considering that they always stayed on the top of the paid lists for productivity apps on iOS and the Mac. But now, they’re essentially bundled with new iOS devices the same way iLife has been bundled with Macs for years now. The Mac wasn’t mentioned this week by Apple, but I’d be surprised if they don’t end up doing the same thing with iWork for Mac — making it free for new Mac with the next major version.

The presumed Microsoft Office 2014 for Mac hasn’t even been seen yet, but it’s suddenly become a much harder sale than any previous version was before. One can’t exactly declare iWork a winner in the office space yet, but Apple’s certainly given normal users a good reason to skip buying Office. Plus, they’ve just made their devices that much more valuable, with so many top-notch free apps included.

Don’t Stop Here

iWork for iCloud beta

But Apple can’t afford to stop here. iWork on the Mac today, after all, is actually iWork ’09, and we’re long overdue for an update. On the iPad, iWork has only seen minor changes since its initial release, and it still sports the now-dated skeuomorphic wooden boarders. We can easily assume what iWork for iPad will look like post-update, thanks to the iWork for iCloud beta. Every other app looks just like its iPad counterpart, so the slate color of iWork iCloud apps will likely show up in the iPad. It’d really seem like a more iOS 7 style upgrade would be in the cards — especially with the Helvetica Neue iWork icon used in the keynote — and I hope we’ll see a more drastic overhaul.

On the Mac, perhaps, a full redesign won’t be seen just yet since Mavericks itself hasn’t seen a full redesign, but a new version would definitely be more than appreciated. There’s a ton Apple could add to it, features that would make it even more competitive for business users, especially when combined with the mobile and web apps. One thing’s for sure: Apple’s taking iWork serious, using it as a headline feature for its devices, and it’s trying to take Microsoft on directly in their most successful business. And even today, iWork is the productivity suite you should consider — it’s free or cheap, works great, and should be getting even better. We can’t wait.