With iWork '08, the latest generation of its office suite, Apple has given Mac users a powerful alternative to Microsoft's Office for Mac. This new version finally offers an alternative to Excel called Numbers, a spreadsheet tool unlike any that has come before it. It also adds some great new features to iWork's other two applications -- the presentation program Keynote and the word processor Pages -- including a few that many users felt were lacking in previous releases.
For example, all the iWork applications now present a contextual Format Bar that displays only the controls or commands relevant to a selected item. This makes it easier to locate specific image effects, text styles or even spreadsheet functions based on what you are working with. In many cases, the Format Bar brings up commands that were always commonly needed but used to be buried somewhere in one of the tabs of the Inspector palette.
Sharing and collaboration seems to be an overall key focus in iWork '08. Pages, Keynote and Numbers all offer a variety of export and sharing options that range from integration with Apple's iWeb to, in the case of Keynote, publishing directly to YouTube.
And collaboration isn't limited to just putting your material out there. All three applications have excellent comment and markup support, allowing multiple users to easily make suggestions, explain changes, and provide information about whole sections or single items in a document.
They also offer the ability to open documents saved in the native Open XML format used by Office 2007 for Windows (though exporting files to Office still puts them in Office 2003 format). This is a major achievement for anyone who needs to exchange files with Office 2007 users, since it means that you don't need to make special requests if you're the only iWork user on a project. It also makes iWork a more reasonable choice in a wide range of environments.
Evident across the board is Apple's continued commitment to providing users with high-end templates to use as a starting point for projects. The design quality and visual impact of the templates in all of the iWork apps is superb, and unlike the templates in most office suites, these actually include sample content (and, in the case of Numbers, functions and formulas) so you truly see how to use the design. This is particularly helpful in Numbers, which includes templates for things that you might never think about using a spreadsheet for, such as planning a dinner party, a vacation itinerary or a home improvement project.
As helpful as this can be for new users, however, the sample content can become annoying after a while when you already have a clear idea of where you want to go with a new document. You can create your own blank templates by deleting the sample material and saving the empty pages as a new template; and many of the templates in iWork '08 have the welcome ability to add a new blank page, in addition to the content-filled pages that were always there. Still, I would have preferred to see Apple include some layout-only, contentless templates for Numbers and Pages.
When asked about how previous versions of Pages compared with Word, I would often say that it was more like a combination of Word and Publisher -- a hybrid word processor and layout tool. This was one of the things that you either loved or hated about the program. One of the best things Apple did with this new release was to give Pages two distinct modes: one for word processing and one for layout, with separate templates for each mode.
The separation of these features makes it much easier to use Pages for straight word processing. You can open a template and just start typing without worrying about placement (either on a single page or multiple pages), but you still have the option of placing graphics and manipulating text boxes if you want. If you really want to lay out a brochure or newsletter, however, where control of text positioning and flow between specific text boxes across multiple pages is critical, Page Layout mode is a better choice. You can create any layout in Word Processing mode that you can make in Page Layout mode -- it's just clumsier.
Page Layout mode in fact gives consumers much of the capability of professional tools like Adobe InDesign and QuarkXPress at a fraction of their cost. It doesn't offer the final printing and prepress options or the typographic control of a pro tool, but those aren't things needed by home users or even many small businesses. And for those who do or will need professional tools, Pages makes a good steppingstone because it relies on the same basic methods as the more expensive applications. The new version doesn't have more layout features than Pages '06 had, but some have been made easier to use, and separating them from the bare writing tools makes them seem more distinct and professional.