Apple still doesn’t work like iWork

David Braue
19 February, 2010
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During a recent configuration exercise, I was considering how best to streamline my workflow – which often involves syncing stories-in-progress between my desktop machine and MacBook using the indispensable DropBox tool.

Since I only have one copy of Microsoft Office for Mac – which was already installed – and because I wanted to keep things as simple as possible, I reasoned the best approach was to install a streamlined office suite that would give me full word processing capabilities and full Word and Excel compatibility.

iWork ’09 came immediately to mind: after all, Apple logically touts Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint compatibility to win over those who are worried a vote for iWork will strand their work on the Mac. Yet after setting up iWork and doing some experiments, it became clear to me that Apple’s idea of ‘compatible’ and mine were something entirely different.

Sure, Pages will read Word documents OK, but once your information is in Pages it goes to some lengths to make sure it stays that way. Saving the document, after all, does not provide the option to save the document as a Word file, nor is there an option to make Word .DOC the default file format for all dealings with Pages.

No, to get a Word file out of Pages, you need to use a separate Export command that creates a second copy (alongside your .pages copy) of your document. It can be done, but let’s just say that it’s clear Apple would prefer you just stick with the Pages format.

Needless to say, this gets messy – and unwieldy – pretty fast. I would create a .DOC file on the desktop, sync it to the MacBook, then ultimately end up with a separate .pages file from which I would have to Cmd-C, Cmd-V the content back into the Word .DOC. Lather, rinse, and repeat.

Accommodating users of other platforms has always been sticky business – witness Microsoft’s extensive efforts in the mid-90s to wean fanatical WordPerfect users to its newfangled Windows-based Word application. Microsoft not only provided native WordPerfect document support, but offered options to make Word look and behave like WordPerfect.

To those of you who think I sound surprised: I’m not. Apple over time has shown no qualms about forcing people to do things its way – and, to its credit, “its way” usually works out very well indeed. But when it comes to little decisions that affect people’s productivity, Apple has to be very, very careful – and perhaps pull away from its dogma far enough to ensure that people don’t feel their productivity has been compromised.

This issue is not entirely dissimilar to my complaints about the new Apple Wireless Keyboard, which did away with a number of perfectly useful keys – full-sized arrow keys, a separate delete key, several function keys, and a numeric keypad, to start – in the name of its minimalist design aesthetic.

To say that I cannot use the keyboard is perhaps incorrect: I have, through equal parts perseverance and determination, trained myself to type quickly on the Apple keyboard, which is smaller and quieter, if less comfortable, than my preferred Microsoft ergonomic keyboard. I keep both around, switching to the Apple keyboard when I need to type quietly to avoid waking the household in late-night writing sessions – but I inevitably go back to the Microsoft keyboard because it is familiar, and provides all the keys I need, and I am more productive in a familiar environment. But just because I can force myself to use something, doesn’t make it intrinsically better.

The same goes with iWork: sure, Apple has packed in some nice features, but it is also trying to strand Pages, Numbers, and Keynote users while providing absolutely no way for Windows users to deal with Pages, Numbers, and Keynote documents. The net effect is stifling on productivity: it’s as useless as if some secret society decided everybody should speak Latin because it’s funky, even though nobody in the society actually spoke Latin and everything would need to be translated.

Oh, and my choice of word processor? Disappointed by this small but significant roadblock to using Pages, which otherwise seems to be a half-decent word processor, I looked around for alternatives. Mariner Write seemed like one option, but it eventually seemed a bit cramped, as though Mariner Software was trying too hard.

I eventually settled on OpenOffice, which like Pages touts its .DOC compatibility – but means it. You can set OpenOffice to read and write documents in .DOC and never have to think about it again, which is exactly what I needed. Documents are synced seamlessly between computers via Dropbox, and I don’t have to think about extracting my content from Pages. Oh yeah – and it’s free.

Perhaps with iWork ’10, Apple will do well to consider the old maxim: if you love your users, set their content free. If they come back to your products, they’re yours forever; if not, they never were. Or something like that.

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