Business Software

Apple's IWork '09 Fine-Tunes Feature Set

The last time Apple updated its iWork productivity suite, it included a number of revolutionary advances over previous versions -- especially the inclusion of the Numbers spreadsheet application. By contrast, this year's move to iWork '09, unveiled at last month's Macworld Expo, feels much more evolutionary than revolutionary. All three applications in the suite -- the Pages word processor, Numbers, and Keynote, Apple's presentation app -- received notable updates, but they tended to fine-tune and complement the existing feature set rather than introduce radical changes.

While the updates may not wow current iWork users, each application got some worthy changes, easily justifying the $79 price tag on iWork '09 -- or the $49 charge if you're buying it along with a new Mac. One interesting note: The updates are largely application-specific, unlike the iWork '08 release, which included general interface updates across all three apps.

One major addition to the suite is iWork.com, a Web-based collaboration tool that allows users to share documents created in any one of the three iWork applications. iWork.com allows multiple users to view and comment on documents through a slick Web interface and download shared documents in iWork, Microsoft Office or PDF formats. For now, iWork.com is available for free, as Apple says it's in public beta testing. Eventually, though, it will be a paid service.

Another update across all three applications is the template browser, which got several new templates. Like previous iWork releases and the iWeb application included in Apple's iLife suite, all three applications offer users a wide range of document templates. The browser for choosing a template when creating a new document has now been tweaked to allow easy viewing of all pages in multipage templates by simply moving the cursor over the template thumbnail -- much like events in iPhoto can quickly display multiple photos.

As with past releases, the available templates are striking and cover a variety of home and business projects, offering new users excellent starting points. Numbers, for example, includes several spreadsheet templates for purposes users might not even think about, such as tracking their diets or workouts, creating a home inventory or even building a math quiz. Third-party templates that extend the features built in by Apple are also available, and users can create and save their own.

As with last year's iWork, however, most of templates have sample data included, making them more like demo files than actual templates. Some might see that as helpful; I tend to find it a little frustrating if I'm creating a new project or document.

Pages

The Pages word processing application has always been an interesting tool that's often seen as iWork's version of Word. While the comparison is natural, Pages offers a much broader feature set, with desktop publishing and page layout functions that go well beyond those offered in Word. Pages is more like a combination of tools such as Word and Publisher, or even like Word combined with Quark or InDesign.

Although new templates for both word processing and page-layout projects are included in Pages '09, the software itself seems to be largely unchanged from its predecessor. The most obvious additions, beyond the new templates and template browser, are the inclusion of iWork.com, Outline and full-screen buttons in the toolbar.

Some other slightly less obvious features include support for mail merges with Numbers spreadsheets and support for MathType and EndNote X2 for adding detailed equation editing and bibliographic references, respectively. (Both features are aimed more at academic communities than at the average user.)

For anyone who is easily distracted by other open windows or applications while writing, the new full-screen feature in Pages is a major help. While not exactly a new concept, Apple's implementation is particularly nice, given the way that moving the cursor to various portions of the screen displays stylish 3-D interfaces for a page navigator (showing thumbnails of every page in a document), scroll bar, the Pages toolbar and the Mac's menu bar.

The dynamic outline feature is useful to anyone who does outlining or even basic brainstorming work. It's easily enabled with the click of a button, and content can be shifted quickly between an outline view and more typical text-editing work. This allows users who work with outlining to rely on a single tool rather than investing in others like OmniOutliner, though additional tools may offer more features.

The easy transition between outlining and word processing or page layout is also particularly helpful compared with using separate tools, where I've seen problems arise when trying to shift content between tools. Another boon: The outline feature supports dragging and dropping of various image or multimedia elements.

The ability to do mail merges has been a sorely lacking feature in past versions of Pages for many users. iWork '09 fills this gap by allowing users to perform merges from both Numbers spreadsheets and from records in the Mac OS X Address Book application. Since Numbers can open and import Excel files, it is also possible to indirectly do merges based on Excel files by using Numbers to open and save the file first. Mail merges work surprisingly well and are pretty easy to do.

One caveat is that tables in Numbers should have a header row assigned that identifies each column in the table. This is because when a table is selected as a merge source in Pages, the header row will be used to identify which pieces of data correspond to components of the merge (first name, last name, address, etc.). This is typically more of an issue when working with a file created in Excel, as most of the Numbers templates assume you will be using a header row.

A preview function of the merge would also be a nice addition. However, neither of these shortcomings really compromises the mail merge feature. In fact, the use of a header row makes it easier to predict merge behavior.

I also really like the fact that Pages supports merges from the Address Book application. With Address Book becoming a mainstay for contact information in Mac OS X -- particularly for Mail and for syncing to the iPhone and across multiple Macs via MobileMe -- it seems logical to make it available as a merge source. It also helps novice users who might want to create mail merges for things such as party invitations, especially if they already use Address Book for contact information but might consider working with a traditional merge from a spreadsheet too confusing to set up.

Keynote

iWork's presentation tool, Keynote, has always offered a very easy-to-use interface and a wide range of slick, professional-looking templates. Keynote '09 builds on the capabilities of its predecessors, making it even easier for users to create stunning presentations. New features like Magic Move and object and text transitions make the creation of animated effects within a single slide, or across multiple slides, incredibly simple. Apple has also added new styles and animation effects for charts, new templates, and a 99-cent application that turns an iPhone or iPod Touch into a handy presentation remote.

Magic Move is one of the coolest new features in Keynote '09. It allows you to select any object -- whether it's an image or text block -- on one slide, duplicate the slide (or copy and paste the elements onto the second slide), modify any attributes of the object on the second slide (location, size, opacity, angle of rotation, etc.), and then select the Magic Move transition effect.

When the presentation is played, every selected item will seamlessly move, resize and transition between the two states with no additional work needed. The effect is completely seamless and so well animated that it's hard to believe no actual planning of the animation is required.

Magic Move isn't the only impressive transition included in Keynote '09. The software builds on its existing 2-D and 3-D special effects for everything from images, charts and video clips to text. The result is dozens of special effects that look more like something in a movie than an office or classroom presentation.

Basic bouncing and dissolving text and images look boring next to text that appears to shift, anagram style, from one slide to another; photos that appear out of virtual flames; and objects that disappear like they're being beamed back to the starship Enterprise. It's as easy to use as selecting the item and choosing the effect by which it appears, moves or vanishes.

Complementing these high-end effects are an array of new options for 3-D charts. If nothing else, Keynote '09 eliminates any excuse for a boring presentation, no matter how staid the content.

For on-the-go types who need to move presentations to Internet storage, active file servers and USB flash drives or even send them via e-mail, Keynote can now reduce file sizes. Converting photos to the resolution of a presentation slide or removing unused frames from embedded videos may not sound like the most exciting of features, but it definitely has its uses -- particularly when most photos and video are captured at resolutions larger than needed for a presentation.

The final big addition in Keynote '09 is the Keynote Remote iPhone/iPod Touch application. I first saw Keynote Remote as a decent use of the iPhone SDK that offered little more than what you could get with an Apple remote or a wireless mouse. To a certain extent, that's true. But because the iPhone or iPod Touch will display the slides and notes for a presentation -- sans the transition effects -- the application frees the presenter from sitting at a computer or even looking at the display. The ability to view presenter notes is particularly smart because that's what usually chains someone giving a presentation to the computer running it.

The process of linking the Keynote Remote app to a computer is much like linking the Remote application to an iTunes library or Apple TV. With both the iPhone and computer connected to the same wireless network -- the computer can be connected via Ethernet as long as it is on the same segment of the network as the wireless router -- the two devices will autodiscover each other using Apple's Bonjour zero-configuration networking. A four-digit PIN displayed on the iPhone is then entered into the preferences for Keynote.

I think this feature has a lot of potential, particularly in large presentation rooms, and I came away really impressed after using it. One aspect that was a bit confusing, however, is that transitions within a single slide display as two separate identical slides on the iPhone because the actual transition isn't shown. It's pretty obvious once you get used to it, but can be a little confusing at first.

Numbers

Numbers, the most recent addition to the iWork suite, received its first update last month. In its original release, Numbers offered a different take on viewing and working with spreadsheet data. The concept of spreadsheets as a collection of tables containing data on sheets that could incorporate one or more tables, charts, images and descriptive text made Numbers a unique and user-friendly tool for both entering and manipulating data and for viewing or presenting details about that information and the calculations based on it.

Numbers '09 offers some powerful updates to the existing features. First and foremost is support for more than 90 additional functions, many of them common to other tools, such as Excel.

In addition to expanding the overall number of functions, Apple offers an improved Numbers browser similar to the help viewer in Mac OS X 10. 5 Leopard that makes it easier to search available functions and find out more about how each function can be used -- with fairly clear descriptions and extensive samples of each function. For anyone new to the software -- or to spreadsheets in general -- the browser is great for learning about functions and building formulas quickly.

Formula editing has also become more accessible through the use of color-coded placeholders in the formula bar that clearly identify each function. The placeholders support easy selection (much like the placeholders used for contact information in address fields in Mac OS X's Mail application) and drag-and-drop reordering within a formula. They also offer contextual pop-up menus that make it easy to select common values associated with the data being calculated. It's a useful tool for easily viewing the details of a formula.

Locating formulas within a Numbers file is also easier with the new Formula List feature. Located in the toolbar, this option displays a pane below the main display that lists every formula in the document, organized by which tables they're in. The list includes the cell containing the formula, the current results and the formula itself. This helps you quickly find and modify formulas, and is probably most helpful when working with one of Apple's templates or a document created by another user.

Perhaps one of the most significant updates to Numbers, however, is its improved charting abilities. The software now allows you to combine different types of charts, such as bar and line graphs, into a single display, which can help track information more easily across a range of data and values.

Even more important, Numbers charts that are inserted into either Pages or Keynote documents are now automatically linked to the original Numbers file. If the Numbers data is updated, a bar will be displayed in the Pages or Keynote document when it is next opened identifying the change and allowing users to update the chart accordingly.

This marks a major step forward for Numbers in general and for iWork as a whole, because it allows data to be used and updated easily and consistently across all three applications -- making the entire suite more efficient and user-friendly. It also encourages users to work with the complete suite rather than just one or two applications.

The process works fairly well, but because the links are between individual files, moving or deleting them (or placing them on a remote file server) can break the link. It's something that users should keep in mind when using the feature or when working with linked iWork documents.

Numbers is still lacking in a couple of features that experienced Excel jockeys will miss. First is support for pivot tables. Numbers approximates the effects of pivot tables with a new table categories feature, which is arguably easier to work with. Table categories allow you to group data from one table and categorize it in another. The categories are based on existing columns in the original table and can be easily expanded or hidden with a disclosure triangle.

The effect is similar to a pivot table and requires much less effort for novice users, and it works well for almost anyone wanting to quickly view related data. However, longtime Excel users may feel the feature doesn't match what they're used to.

A second missing feature is Excel macro support. Although Numbers can easily open and save in Excel formats, it cannot work with macros. If a macro exists in a file that is edited in Numbers and saved, the macro seems to be consistently stripped from the document. And while Numbers can save to Excel formats without any major issues, Numbers files that contain a lot of additional Numbers-specific formatting may require some formatting work if opened in Excel, though the software still does a good job of organizing much of the data from Numbers sheets into a different workbook.

iWork.com

Continuing the general trend toward cloud-based computing, Apple has created iWork.com, an Internet-based collaborative feature for iWork users. The service, currently free while in beta, allows users to upload documents directly from the iWork applications and share them with others. Shared documents are available through a Web version, which manages to preserve formatting across various browsers -- including the iPhone's mobile version of Safari -- and can be downloaded in iWork, Office or PDF formats for offline viewing and editing.

Unfortunately, iWork.com's sharing is essentially read-only. Unlike Google Docs and similar solutions from other providers (including Microsoft's forthcoming offerings), iWork doesn't let multiple users edit documents. In fact, no one can edit documents directly online with the service.

Instead, users can add comments and notes when viewing a document online. Comments function exactly as they do in iWork documents, appearing as little virtual Post-it notes linked to specific pieces of text, cells or other objects and overlaying the document itself.

Notes function more like a chat feature and appear in a sidebar to the right of the actual document, displaying information about the owner/creator and anyone viewing the document (including whether they are online and actively viewing it). The sidebar also includes the option to download an offline copy of the document. While comments allow users to collaborate and offer suggestions or corrections about specific points in a document, notes facilitate more general discussion among participants. Both features work very well for collaboration.

Sharing a document is easy. With a document open in any of the three applications, simply click the iWork.com button in the toolbar. A dialog box will ask who you want to share the document with, and you can either enter e-mail addresses or contacts from Address Book (contacts will autocomplete much as they do in Mail). An e-mail will be sent to those people using Apple's Mail application -- other e-mail apps aren't supported -- and you can specify the subject of the e-mail as well as a message describing the document.

You can also choose whether users are allowed to download the document or just view it online, and whether users can add comments. You can also designate a name for the document other than the default file name on your computer and which formats are supported: iWork '08, iWork '09, Office or PDF.

Once a document is shared, it is uploaded to the iWork.com service in the selected formats. Shared users will get an e-mail with a link to the document. Although you need an Apple ID to sign in to the service and share the document, other users aren't required to use one to access it. (The Apple ID used for iWork.com is the same one used for iTunes purchases.) You can also use a MobileMe account.

By selecting the "Show Shared Documents" item from the Share menu in any of the iWork apps, you can see a list of all your shared documents, delete them if you want and see how much space you're using on the service. For now, users get up to 1GB for free while iWork.com is in beta.

iWork.com is a solid first step into cloud computing for iWork, and it seems Apple has done a better job with this than with its first foray into the cloud with the problematic MobileMe launch last summer. The new service is reliable and easy to use.

By not allowing users to edit documents online, however, iWork.com is simply not that useful as a collaborative tool. Users can download documents, make changes, and re-share them, but the re-shared versions will be treated by iWork.com as separate documents. They will also be tied to the Apple ID of the person who downloaded and edited them.

This really restricts iWork.com's usefulness for collaboration. There's no direct collaboration on the content of a document built into the service, and if users do download and perform offline editing, version control issues are likely to crop up -- especially with documents created with different iWork.com accounts and on different computers. The version control issues also extend to the comments and notes features. Users could end up with multiple versions of documents with different content and different discussion elements.

Even with these limitations, iWork.com shows promise. It's better than other Web-based solutions for viewing full formatting within a document, and the discussion features are well done. It also makes sharing documents a one-click process; there's no need to add attachments to e-mails or post documents to a Web site or online storage site. But keep in mind that iWork.com, as it stands now, is better used for sharing and discussion -- not active collaboration.

Overall impressions

For $79, iWork '09 is a solid suite for newcomers and a worthy upgrade for current users, even if it seems like a largely incremental update. There are a variety of useful additions to all three applications, though Numbers is probably the one with the most changes.

For many users, iWork serves as a viable and cost-effective alternative to Microsoft Office, one that distinguishes itself with ease of use and the visual flair it can add to data, documents and presentations. With a free trial version available, users who have been curious about iWork can take it for a thorough test drive before deciding whether to buy.

Chances are, they'll like what they find.

Ryan Faas is a frequent Computerworld contributor specializing in Mac and multiplatform network issues. You can find more information about him at RyanFaas.com.

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