Review: Apple's iWork for iCloud is elegant but limited

Apple's online productivity suite is exceptionally polished and easy to use, but lacking in word processing and spreadsheet features

This is the second in a series of three reviews covering the major online productivity apps -- Microsoft Office Online, Apple iWork for iCloud, and Google Drive (aka Google Docs or Google Apps). Welcome to iWork for iCloud and its three component apps: Pages, Numbers, and Keynote for iCloud.

Perhaps the most striking thing about iWork for iCloud is that unlike Office Online and the Google Drive suite, it has clearly been built as a whole from the ground up. Office Online inherits its DNA from Microsoft Office, which itself grew in Frankenstein fashion over many years. The Google Apps resemble Office 2003 in an uncanny way; they, too, have odds and ends grafted on the side. Both remain saddled with old-fashioned interfaces, and even old-fashioned notions about what constitutes a document or a spreadsheet or a presentation. With iWork, Apple takes a fresh approach.

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Unlike Microsoft and Google, Apple doesn't draw a distinction between personal and corporate use of its online suite. If there's a way to actually pay for iWork for iCloud, I haven't found it. Apple used to sell iOS and OS X versions of the iWork apps, but as of September 2013, they're free for those who buy new Apple computers. Also unlike Microsoft and Google, Apple notes that its online apps are currently in beta.

Getting started with Apple's iWork for iCloud is much like with Office Online and Google Apps. Just go to icloud.com and log in with an Apple account (7GB free iCloud storage for signing up). Like Office Online and Google Drive, iWork for iCloud officially supports all four of the major browsers.

How iWorks hangs togetherMore than any other suite in these reviews, iWork for iCloud has a very coherent, uniform design -- the apps hang together well. Even the icons at the top of the window (see Figure 1) are identical in all three apps. They have a minimalist feel, but cover all of the bases. The zoom box at the top makes it easy to grow or shrink the visible area.

All of the iWork for iCloud apps have spacing and centering grids, invoked under the wrench icon. They all insert text boxes and shapes and pictures in the same way: If you learn how to put a table in Pages, for example, the same precise method works in Numbers and Keynote. Formatting panes, with tabs, on the right are nearly identical in the various apps.

Usability, in a word, is excellent, in no small part because the general approach is the same in all of the apps. That coherent design is reflected in the interface itself.

However, Apple has built a retaining wall around iCloud, with high partitions in between, and dealing with it can be frustrating. Instead of doing like Google Drive and Microsoft OneDrive and offering a simple click-and-drag interface with deep Mac or Windows File Manager integration, iCloud only accepts files through its browser-based interface, and it stuffs them into strictly cordoned off areas for Pages, Numbers, and Keynote.

If you want to edit a Word document in Pages for iCloud, you have to direct your browser to iCloud, flip to the Pages app, then drag the Word document from your Mac or Windows PC into the landing area inside the browser. If you want to edit a spreadsheet, flip to Numbers, then drag and drop your workbook into the browser. There's no easy way to move a file from one bucket to another, no way to group files by, say, project instead of file type. All of your file manipulation has to take place inside that browser window. It's frustrating and slow.

As with Office Online and Google Drive, iWork for iCloud has a printing capability. Click on the Wrench, click on Print, and iWork generates a PDF file. You can then click on a button to Open PDF, your browser's PDF viewer kicks in, and usually you can print to anything, anywhere.

Unlike the other two suites, iWork for iCloud will open password-protected Microsoft Office documents. Even Office Online won't do that.

Pages for iCloudFor word processing, Pages for iCloud includes more than 60 popular typefaces, similar to Word Online but less than the nearly unlimited number in Google Docs. Predefined paragraph styles can't be modified, but individual paragraphs can be centered or bulleted, and their line spacing (before, after, internal) can be changed. You can draw on full find and replace, page numbering, and footnotes, and you can insert fixed-size tables and wrap text within cells and include a wide array of mathematical functions. In fact, tables inside Pages docs are functionally identical to tables inside spreadsheets -- a remarkable concept, well executed. Text boxes can have paragraph styles and variable alignment, and there's a small number of pre-defined shapes and arrows.

Pictures can be resized and relocated, and you can make use of an extensive array of picture-handling features, including rotation, shadows, opacity, and even reflections. There's adjustable text wrapping around pictures. Pages will check spelling as you type, but I found that it flagged relatively common technical terms (e.g., taskbar) as misspelled, and there's no way to train the spellchecker.

Sharing and collaboration are easy, with unique cursors and selection colors for each collaborator and real-time updates of modified elements (shown in Figure 1) -- much the same as Word Online and Google Docs. But only iWork supports collaboration between its online apps and its desktop apps: If you have the same doc open in Keynote for iCloud and Keynote for the Mac and Keynote for iPad, for example, changes made in any one of the three show up more or less immediately in all of the others.

Figure 1: Changes made by collaborators are updated on all copies of the document more or less immediately. The location of the collaborator's cursor appears as colored wedges.

A major iWork update on April 2, 2014 introduced a "view only" setting for shared documents, allowing specific users to watch but not change the docs. At this point, you can't create hyperlinks in iWork documents -- a major omission -- and there's no way to view tracked changes or comments.

All told, Pages for iCloud has most of the functions most people will need, but many meat-and-potatoes features found in Word Online or Google Docs aren't there. You can't crop pictures, include comments, or perform the sorts of page layout tricks you can manage in Word Online.

That said, Pages for iCloud is very easy to use, streamlined, and clutter free, buoyed by the remarkably consistent interface among all three iWork apps.

Numbers for iCloudNumbers for iCloud treats tables much like any other element on a page -- text, graphics, and charts all intermingle with tables. Numbers provides extensive click-to-apply cell formatting, and it shares the same muscular formula editor found in Pages and Keynote for iCloud. You can autofill a sequence of numbers (or some text entries, such as days of the week) by entering the first two items in the set and dragging down the drag handle in the lower right corner.

By default, Numbers continues text within a cell by expanding the size of the cell, but if you want to "flow" text into the next cell, you can do so by unchecking the box marked Wrap Text in Cell in the Cell tab of the table formatting pane. Built-in data entry tools include a slider, a stepper, star rating, and checkbox, as shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2: Numbers for iCloud's built-in slider control, with checkbox and star rating formatted cells above, makes for easier data entry.

You can create hyperlinks and re-order sheets. Numbers for iCloud does not support pivot tables or pivot charts, as you'll find in Excel Online, although there are more complex ways to accomplish the same objectives. Like Pages, Numbers has a "view only" setting that allows other collaborators to look but not touch.

For those of you accustomed to starting a new spreadsheet and being presented with a gazillion empty rows and columns, the Numbers approach will feel odd at first: Drag a new table onto a spreadsheet, and you get a modest grid, which can be readily overlapped with another modest grid. Once you get used to it, the ability to put multiple tables on a single sheet becomes mighty handy, and in most cases it's much easier to use than Excel's split screens.

Keynote for iCloudMany people who use Keynote for iCloud prefer it to the desktop version of PowerPoint. Keynote for iCloud has almost as many features as Keynote for Mac, it's easier to use than desktop PowerPoint, and it works much like a Pages document. Click and drag to add items to slides, then edit much as you would in Pages.

Text in a Keynote presentation is fully formattable, including styles -- though styles can't be altered inside Keynote for iCloud. Fonts are limited to the specific set of 60 or so that are built into the program. Master slides have their own guides that are independent of the regular slides. You can use the full array of Pages tools to add items to a slide -- text boxes, pictures with lots of formatting options, tables, shapes -- but you can't add audio or video, as you can in Google Slides and even PowerPoint Online. Just as in Pages, inserted tables have all of the formatting and formula editing capabilities of Numbers. You can edit imported charts, transitions are trivially easy to apply, and there are many built-in options. Presentation notes are easy to add, and they can be edited during the presentation.

On the downside, Apple still hasn't included support for Presenter Notes in Keynote for iCloud, although the company has been promising it for at least eight months. Where there are acres of templates for new Keynote for Mac presentations, Keynote for iCloud has a piddling selection. (If you start the presentation on OS X, then move to the browser-based Keynote, the template you choose carries through to Keynote for iCloud. You just don't have as many options when you start a new presentation in iCloud.) That kind of shortcoming seems odd because the amount of work involved in bringing the iCloud version up to speed would appear to be minimal.

Microsoft Office compatibilityThere seems to be two camps when it comes to considering Office compatibility. Either Office compatibility is very important to you or it doesn't matter at all.

I tested Office document compatibility of each suite with six real-world documents. Each of the word processors were fed a simple .doc with a weird font and a table with a simple formula, a .docx that included tracked changes, and a four-page, 65MB .docx newsletter packed with text boxes and graphics. Each of the spreadsheets was exposed to a simple .xls and a relatively complex one-page .xlsx, password-protected, with a chart. Finally, the presentation programs gnawed on a simple .ppt. All of the documents were collected "in the wild."

Pages for iCloud had some trouble with the simple .doc. It changed the Monotype Corsiva font to Cochin (which isn't nearly the same), and it changed Garamond to Helvetica, making the page look very different. The table and its contents couldn't be edited, although it could be deleted. When I tried to copy and paste the table, I found I could only insert it into the top of the document. When I made a few simple changes and downloaded the document in Word format, an underscore went missing and Wingding characters were changed.

When I opened the tracked-changes document, all of the Calibri fonts had been changed to MS Trebuchet (a reasonable alternative) and the tracked changes had all been accepted correctly. I made a small change and downloaded the result, and the fonts changed back to Calibri.

The newsletter -- the one that threw Word Online for a loop, as I described in the Office Online review -- displayed reasonably well, considering the Cambria fonts had all been changed to Times New Roman. Graphics appeared in the correct locations and text flowed around them properly. All of the text in the (numerous!) textboxes was editable. I made a few changes to the text, downloaded in Word format, and the resulting document was basically useless -- all of the text wrapping was gone, with the pictures appearing above and blocking the text.

The big-but-simple Excel spreadsheet opened correctly in Numbers for iCloud, but it tossed up errors that weren't errors in Excel. For example, in Figure 3, Numbers says that it can't subtract dates, a common trick in Excel.

Figure 3: Numbers for iCloud isn't able to do subtraction with dates -- a common trick in Excel.

Changing values in the spreadsheet led to expected behavior -- totals, averages, and the like calculated correctly, both within individual sheets and across sheets. After I made changes and downloaded the changed spreadsheet in Excel format, it arrived with a cover page that said, "This document was exported from Numbers. Each table was converted to an Excel worksheet. All other objects on each Numbers sheet were placed on separate worksheets. Please be aware that formula calculations may differ in Excel." On closer examination, all of the numbers and formulas were intact, and they calculated correctly -- even the ones flagged as being invalid in Sheets.

Opening the password-protected spreadsheet led to a warning: "Your spreadsheet will open in Numbers for iCloud. Some features aren't supported in this beta release, and related content will be removed. To preserve the original, click Open Copy." To my surprise, the resulting spreadsheet worked just fine, with the formatting all preserved, although the generated pie chart was hopelessly garbled and comments had been dropped. I made a few small changes and downloaded the result; I came away with a ZIP file that was basically useless.

The PowerPoint presentation had problems when run in Keynote for iCloud under Internet Explorer -- simple transitions and animations didn't work, and several slides were garbled. When I opened the PowerPoint in Keynote for iCloud in Firefox, I received the message, "Your browser isn't fully supported. For the best Keynote for iCloud experience, use a supported browser." (Odd that I didn't get a similar admonition about IE.) When I tried Chrome, the transitions and animations didn't work, either, and graphics were garbled. Finally, I cranked up Safari in OS X 10.7.5, tried again, and saw black screens and that the message, "Slide couldn't be displayed. Do you want to try again?"

In summary, based on these tests, iWork for iCloud is reasonably good at rendering Microsoft Word docs and Excel spreadsheets, but PowerPoint presentations are beyond its ken. Simple changes to simple docs carry through, albeit with significant round-trip formatting changes, but simple changes to some complex docs can have disastrous results.

Will iWork for iCloud work for you?There's no simple answer. Apple is a newcomer to the online office game, and it shows. The three iWork for iCloud apps feel like they were designed from the ground up to unify the concepts behind word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations. Their interfaces are remarkably similar, minimalist, and easy to follow. The design is at once elegant and accessible.

But Apple's file interface stinks. Of the three major browser-based office suites, Apple's is the worst for handling files. The only simple way to get a file into iWork for iCloud is to drag and drop it into a specific app's Web page. You can't sync a folder on a Mac or PC with iWork for iCloud, as you can Office Online and Google Drive. And if there's a way to set up folders from inside iWork for iCloud, I couldn't find it.

If you aren't overly concerned about Office compatibility and you only work with a few documents, iWork for iCloud is an excellent choice. Experienced Office users will have to unlearn a lot they "know" about documents, spreadsheets, and presentations, but the clean iWork interface really shows through.

Further, iWork is free for all computers bought during or after September 2013. That isn't just iWork for iCloud, mind you. The offer also extends to the downloadable iWork suite for OS X and iWork for iOS, both of which are available in the Apple App Store.

As iWork for iCloud is still officially in "beta," it's entirely possible that Apple will charge for personal or business use in the future. But as it stands right now, iWork for iCloud appears to be free for all. If only Apple would bake in some decent file handling.

This story, "Review: Apple's iWork for iCloud is elegant but limited," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in Windows, applications, and cloud computing at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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