The Apple iPad tablet has sparked passionate debate regarding whether it can be a productive business tool, or is merely a consumer toy–a glorified iPod Touch with a thyroid condition. To make an attempt at resolving the debate, I have been putting the iWork for iPad apps–the rough equivalent of the core Microsoft Office productivity suite–to the test.
The spreadsheet is one of the de facto business productivity applications, so taking a closer look at how Numbers stacks up against Microsoft Excel, or at least how it works with Microsoft Excel seems like a fair barometer for measuring the business potential of the iPad.
The first time you open Numbers you are greeted with an image that says “Tap to Get Started with Numbers”. What I did not realize initially, but soon discovered, is that this is actually a Numbers spreadsheet providing the basic details you need to work with the app.
There are 14 different tabs explaining the conventions of pinching and zooming, and swiping to pan, as well as tabs explaining how to add new cell contents, or how to copy and paste from one cell to another. The basics of a spreadsheet should be simple enough, but it’s nice that Apple has essentially included the user manual for Numbers as a spreadsheet for reference sake.
Clicking on the “My Spreadsheets” button at the top left brings you back to where the spreadsheet is represented as an image on the iPad screen. You can start a new spreadsheet by either touching the “New Spreadsheet” button at the top left, or the folder with the plus sign at the bottom of the screen–followed by touching the “New Spreadsheet” button that pops up. Clicking the folder at the bottom also offers an option to “Duplicate Spreadsheet” should you want to start with an existing spreadsheet as a foundation.
Touching “New Spreadsheet” brings up a screen of spreadsheet templates. There are 16 total, 15 pre-formatted for specific purposes, and one that is simply a blank spreadsheet. The pre-formatted templates include things like Checklist, Mortgage Calculator, Weight Loss & Running Log, Travel Planner, Expense Report, and Attendance roster.
If you choose the blank spreadsheet, you can obviously mold the spreadsheet to be whatever you need it to be. Double-tapping a cell brings up the virtual keyboard along with a an entry field representing the cell. You can switch from inputting numbers, to text, to dates and times, to formulas by touching the icons to the left of the input field.
Using the icons at the top of the display–which unlike Pages, the iWork for iPad equivalent for Microsoft Word, actually appear in both portrait and landscape display–you can access all of the common formatting options for cell contents, shading, fonts, etc.
Working with Excel
The iWork for iPad Numbers app can also work with Microsoft Excel files. Getting the files in to the iPad is a tad convoluted, though. The standard method is to use iTunes to sync the files you want on the iPad. With the iPad connected, you click on Apps, then at the bottom under File Sharing choose the app you want to work with and add the files you want to sync.
Simple! Not. Sort of a pain in the butt, really. And, if you are out and about with your iPad and suddenly realize you need to work with a file you did not sync up with iTunes you are out of luck. That is, unless you happen to store your data in the cloud. In that case, there is still some hope.
The iPad does not have any file management functionality per se, but if you have files stored using Box.net, or Dropbox, or iWork.com, or other cloud-based data storage solutions, you may be able to send the file to yourself as an e-mail attachment. Once you open the e-mail attachment, a button will be available at the top right of the display to allow you to open it using the appropriate iWork for iPad app.
With the Microsoft Excel file opened up in Numbers–whether you synced it with iTunes or e-mailed it from the cloud–you can now view and edit the data. The conventions for doing so are different as mentioned earlier–pinching, and zooming, and swiping are not terms normally used with Excel. But, the bottom line is that most of the functionality you need to work with the Excel files is there once understand the conventions used in Numbers and how to navigate around the features.
Numbers is quite capable. For someone used to working with Microsoft Excel, or working with spreadsheet software using a mouse and keyboard, Numbers will take some getting used to. But, the built-in templates are nice for many quick tasks you might want to accomplish with a spreadsheet, and the functionality is there to do more if you want to dive deeper.
That said, Numbers is not a replacement for Microsoft Excel–especially not for hardcore spreadsheet users. The lack of a native file management capability, and the convoluted methods required just to get spreadsheet files imported or exported with Numbers can be quite frustrating.
The bottom line, though, is that Numbers will serve as a very capable proxy for Excel for mobile business professionals on the go. Simply forming the habit of storing data in the cloud where it can be accessed no matter where you are greatly enhances the business potential of the iPad.
The true answer is subjective, though–more a matter of personal opinion than anything else. There will be those who swear by the iPad as a mobile business productivity tool, and there will be those who consider that a form of heresy, and will continue to rely on traditional notebook or netbook PC’s for their mobile computing needs.
Tony Bradley is co-author of Unified Communications for Dummies . He tweets as @Tony_BradleyPCW . You can follow him on his Facebook page , or contact him by email at email@example.com .