iWork vs. Office: Apple Chooses, Microsoft Faces a Dilemma

on October 30, 2013
Reading Time: 4 minutes

iWork photos (Apple)

Apple took a big step last week when it made its iWorks apps–Pages, Numbers, and Keynote–free to buyers of new iPhones, iPads, and Macs. But the redesign of the programs themselves may have been a bigger, if less commented-upon move. Apple has finally decided what it wants iWork to be, and the decision should cause some real unease at Microsoft.

Apple has always been ambivalent about these productivity apps, first announced for the Mac in 2005. On the one hand, it seemed to want to challenge Microsoft Office. On the other, it wanted them to be simpler tools for the rest of us. As is often the case with indecision, Apple landed squarely between stools. Although the apps, particularly the Keynote presentation program, were embraced by some professionals, they never posed a serious threat to the domination of Office, even on the Mac, in business. At the same time, the desktop programs, which were last updated in 2009, were more complex than necessary for most consumers.

The rise of the iPad forced a choice. Apple knows that its customers are increasingly using iPad as primary computing devices, so it is promoting the use of its tablets to create documents, not just look at them or edit them lightly. To promote this, it has redesigned both the OS X and iOS versions of the software to be as alike as possible in both appearance and function.

Pages Mac and iPad screenshots

A Rich UI for the Mac. The apps are still significantly different. The OS X version has a considerably richer user interface that takes advantage of the larger displays and pixel-precise selection available on Macs. The only real storage option available on the iPad is iCloud, though that does make syncing documents between devices simple (The real time updating demonstrated in the Apple keynote was an illusion; in the real world, it takes up to a few minutes for documents to sync across the internet.) And the Mac, you has access to all the fonts installed on your system, but if you go beyond a core selection, substitute fonts will be used on the iPad (I’m assuming that no one wants to do much of this on an iPhone) because on iOS, the fonts you get are the fonts you have. But in many key ways, the apps are remarkably alike on different types of devices.

Of course, the price paid for this is a considerable simplification of the OS X versions. This set off predictable protests from the vocal minority of professional users who had come to depend heavily on the advanced features. Apple support forums filled with complaints, especially about Pages. (Keynote, perhaps because it is widely used internally to create Apple presentations, underwent less change. No one seems to much care about Numbers.) Seth Godin, who understands why Apple made the choices it did, complains, “Features and the goal of building for a craftsman are exchanged for the cross-platform ease and gimcracks that will please a crowd happy enough with free.”

Upsetting the faithful. It is unfortunate that in simplifying iWork, Apple has upset some of its oldest, loyalist customers, who may now need another program for creating complex documents (and it will be interesting to see where they turn, but that’s another article.) Apple wants iWorks to be software for the mass market, a customer base that increasingly wants to create on their iPads. For most of them, iWork is good enough on the Mac and the best thing available on the iPad. Consumers who don’t need to create (or handle; iWork apps can read Office document formats, but the conversions are often imperfect) large or complex documents or formula- and macro-laden spreadsheets don’t need Office. And if they want to switch freely between Macs and iPads, they don’t want it.

Microsoft, meanwhile, doggedly refuses to get it. In a blog post following the Apple announcement, communications chief Frank Shaw wrote:

And so it’s not surprising that we see other folks now talking about how much “work” you can get done on their devices. Adding watered down productivity apps. Bolting on aftermarket input devices. All in an effort to convince people that their entertainment devices are really work machines.

In that spirit, Apple announced yesterday that they were dropping their fees on their “iWork” suite of apps. Now, since iWork has never gotten much traction, and was already priced like an afterthought, it’s hardly that surprising or significant a move. And it doesn’t change the fact that it’s much harder to get work done on a device that lacks precision input and a desktop for true side-by-side multitasking.

As Harry C. Marks wrote in a Tech.pinions post yesterday, Microsoft has long avoided making hard choices between consumers and enterprise, between tablets and traditional PCs. The result is “no compromises” hardware and software that, in fact, represent the most dreadful compromise of all. So far, Office has remained true to its heritage.  It exists primarily to serve enterprise and government users, who are dependent on such features as very sophisticated, fine-grained change tracking and citations. But even the touch-enhanced Office 2013 remains all but unusable on a pure touchscreen tablet.

Choices for Office. Microsoft has promised touch-first versions of Office apps next year for both Windows and iOS and Android tablets, and it will be very interesting to see what choices they make. The complex, multilayered interface has to be simplified drastically, and unless Microsoft has found some until-now unimagined UI trick, that means that a lot of features are going to have to be stripped out.

But Microsoft has far fewer degrees of freedom than Apple. For one thing, Office is crucial to the company’s continued prosperity, while iWorks wasn’t even a footnote for Apple. Apple could afford to throw iWork power users overboard because, despite their passion, their numbers are small, while the users of advanced Office features are the heart of the market. Microsoft can afford to lose the Office consumer market, but it cannot ignore the growing use of tablets, most of them Apple’s, in the enterprise.

Will a redesigned Office be simple enough to work well in a touch-only environment? Will it still be Office in more than name? Apple has made its choice, though, in fairness, it wasn’t a terribly hard one. Microsoft has no easy way out of its dilemma.