iWork photos (Apple)

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

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.


Published by

Steve Wildstrom

Steve Wildstrom is veteran technology reporter, writer, and analyst based in the Washington, D.C. area. He created and wrote BusinessWeek’s Technology & You column for 15 years. Since leaving BusinessWeek in the fall of 2009, he has written his own blog, Wildstrom on Tech and has contributed to corporate blogs, including those of Cisco and AMD and also consults for major technology companies.

89 thoughts on “iWork vs. Office: Apple Chooses, Microsoft Faces a Dilemma”

  1. Apple leaves the old versions of iWork 09 on your mac when you update to iWork 13. How come this is not mentioned in almost every article I read on the issue?

    1. When I first started in this business, a wise person taught me that the craft of writing was mostly deciding what to leave out (true of software development too.) I decided to leave out the fate of older versions of iWork as the column topped 1,000 words.

      It’s certainly true that you can go on using the old versions of iWorks; I still have iWorks ’09 on my Macs. But Apple has deprecated the software: It will not be developed further and there is no guarantee it will be supported in the future.

      1. Right, it’s deprecated and won’t be supported in the future. But I think the implication is that Apple has learned from the FCP remake. People can’t just assume that Apple is “dumbing down” iWork and leaving them with even less robust tools than they are used to. Clearly, there is a plan to regain any “lost” ground, as iWork builds from a new base that can achieve some parity and gain better interaction between OS X, iOS and browser. And this might be worth hearing about in more than just one or two articles out there.

        1. I’m not so sure.

          It’s still a mystery why Apple de-featured Final Cut Pro X. But we know the reason for the changes in iWork: it was to streamline the UI to make OS X and iOS versions more consistent. Can they add back the features and maintain the simplicity? That’s a big challenge (also for Microsoft.)

          1. I guess you’re right; many people are saying Apple will add back those features, because this upgrade’s priority was feature parity between iOS and Mac OS. And yes, Apple hasn’t said whether they’re going to do that or not; that’s the problem. Pros need communication, and Apple needs to do better at communicating with them.

            But, at the very least, the fact that Apple kept those around when upgrading shows that they at least recognise that those power features are important. Perhaps Apple left them behind as a safeguard; ‘just leave those behind first, and see what kind of feedback we get’. And Apple may not communicate their plans very effectively to its customers, but they do listen to them.

          2. I face the same problems with my customer rollouts. It’s impossible to plan a major project, from beginning to end, and have everything come out perfect. It’s wise to leave time for a re-evaluation toward the end of the project, so that you can make adjustments.

            With Final Cut Pro, it would’ve been easy for Apple to focus, for example, on splicing tools and have the best darn splicer in the industry, but ignore multi-cam abilities. Supposedly the new UI eliminated the need for multi-cam/monitor support, but they were wrong, and able to correct for it quickly.

            I do the same thing on proects that I manage, being a McKinsey and Deloitte/Touche-trained management consultant.

            Assess and budget.
            Establish the new infrastructure (the core of the project, what you’re absolutely certain of)
            Leak test (confirm what’s left to do, make adjustments, get comments)
            Repeat leak test/tighten cycle until the project meets the objectives.

            The key to dealing with risk and uncertainty is to delay the unknown long enough to reduce the risk to manageable proportions.

            Oh, and think…if Apple had said “We aren’t completely certain what the final version of FCP X will look like, but we’re going to ask you to use this “core” version until we can get your comments and figure it out, everybody would be using Avid today. It isn’t always in everyone’s best interest to “communicate effectively” to your customers. Often, it isn’t even in the customer’s best interests.

      2. “When I first started in this business, a wise person taught me that the craft of writing was mostly deciding what to leave out…”

        That is wise, wise advice…

        …that I never take. I’m always advocating simplicity yet I’m always adding complexity (and length) to my articles.

        Sigh. Do as Steve says, not as I do.

        1. For over 20 years, my stock in trade was the 800-word column. And this was in print, so it was a hard limit. It was a great discipline.

          1. Steve, keeping it brief is a good practice. Still, the shorter the article, the more tightly you need to hone your points.

            You often bring up very interesting lines of thought, but you tend to leave me wanting more development. It’s annoying because I want to see you fully develop your points, but you waste many words on filler.

            Serve the steak lean, if you prefer, but please don’t throw the meat on the floor…

            Please don’t presume I’m insulting you. If I thought you couldn’t do better, or that what you have to offer isn’t valuable, I would suffer in silence.

        2. Kind sir, please don’t shorten your pieces. I find that your articles have a very special flair and I enjoy them as I do a great syrah. I devour your well-placed quotes, often planning to use them later.

          A great writer says all that needs to be said, but nothing more.

          If you’ll pardon my saying so, I do wish you would talk Steve into writing longer pieces so that we “subscribers” can get full benefit of his talent.

          Perhaps this is what “N” meant. There’s an elusive, happy medium between your body of work and Steve’s. If only I could nudge you both toward it.

          1. If there’s a clamor for long, I’ll write long. Our general understanding has been that Tech.pinions readers are busy folks who like us to–mostly–keep posts short.

          2. Yes! Yes! ***banging gong*** Not long for the sake of being long, but fully developed. You have a lot to say and I want to hear it, rather than feel like a plane that ran out of runway while taking off.

            I come to Techpinions, and pay the subscription fee for this and other sites because I want (ha ha) “great perspective, insight and analysis”, well-written, well-developed, well-edited, so that I walk away with an advantage that those who are NOT Tech-pinions insiders don’t have.

            Please, someone, back me up if you want longer pieces by Steve Wildstrom.

    2. This concerns me as well. I’m reasonably certain that the loss of certain features is temporary, as Apple rebuilds its iWork offering. Just as with Final Cut Pro and, to a lesser extent, Logic, it was necessary to prepare a “core” and ship it to the public for comments. iWork 13 is the foundation for what is to come, not the last word. “Rome wasn’t rebuilt in a day.”

  2. Great analysis as always Steve. Given that you and John are the site’s most talented writers (article structure, style, etc.), I wonder if Tech.pinions should break with the new thinking that everyone is a writer. Thus, when a member of the TP team with excellent insights but not excellent writing skills has some new analysis to share, he would co-author the article with you or John or someone hired purely as a ghost writer. Just a thought on how to improve TP, especially now that some of us are paying for it.

    Speaking of which, that’s an interesting topic itself. I so far have not found any discernible difference between public and Insider articles. Maybe that’s the point. As an Insider, you just get more articles, not necessarily different types of articles. If so, the marketing materials should make that clear.

    Sorry about the inside baseball but I work in publishing and find TP fascinating — and enjoyable.

    1. Unfortunately I’ve found that Steve’s articles are the most lacking, in accuracy as well as technical execution of the English language. I enjoy his topic choices and he seems like a good counterbalance as well as a great guy, but…he’s no English major…and he’s no Anand Shimpi (Anandtech) or John Siracusa (Ars Technica) or Ben Thompson (Stratechery) or Chuck Demerjian (SemiAccurate).

      I greatly enjoy Steve’s style; he often makes very good point; yet he really needs a good editor, both to fact check him and to correct some of his most atrocious grammatical constructs. Even the very talented can do better, and I believe Steve could easily become one of the best columnists on the web, paid or otherwise.

      1. Everyone could use a good editor, and it is one of the unfortunate things about this new world of publishing that we don’t have them.

        If I have errors in facts or grammar in my posts, please point them out. I am more than happy to correct any mistakes.

        I definitely am not trying to be another Anand Shimpi or John Siracusa. They work at a level of technical depth that I neither can nor want to emulate (though they do great work and are wonderful resources for the rest of us.) Demerjian is much more hardware-oriented the I am, but Thompson is a great model.

        1. As I suspected, you are gracious enough to accept constructive criticism.

          Out of those I mentioned, I believe it’s only Thompson and Demerjian who don’t have editors…somewhat surprising since SemiAccurate has a $1000 annual subscription.

          Frankly, I see you as a cross between Thompson (who has great insight) and Andy Ihnatko (who has a very human, personable tone and style).

          I hope a podcast is somewhere in your future plans.

          Thanks again for your civility and great thoughts.

  3. Great summary of why Apple did this and how it affects Microsoft.

    I don’t think that Apple did this to stick it to Microsoft specifically. Apple did this for competitive reasons in the mobile space. This sticks it to Samsung, HTC, etc.

    1. I agree. This is one of the reasons why Samsung is courting developers. They’re making personal phone calls and scheduling developer conferences for 2013 (NOT waiting until 2014).

  4. Me thinks it is more a bulwark to Google as much as a slap at MSFT. The key is mobile, Mobile, MOBILE. That is the trend and the so be it. The ornaments will come back to iWork. In fact I like the new Keynote much better than ’09, especially on the iPad!!!!. Seems I have anew iPad with the new transitions and all that magically appeared when the upgrade got done. BTW, I use my iPad for presentations and felt knobbled by the 5 second transition limit on the old Keynote. Nice article except for some grammar issues…

  5. Microsoft’s primary challenge is not its products. The company is simultaneously looking for a new CEO, subjecting their employees to a major reorg, and attempting to mix their culture with a different one in Finland. This is a recipe for a train wreck, and the question is whether it’s likely to be fatal or just seriously harmful.

  6. One big difference between Apple and Microsoft is that Apple seems to understand non-consumption while Microsoft seems to have no clue. Apple is targeting people who either currently do not use iWork or those who were only using a fraction of the capabilities of an office suite. Microsoft, on the other hand, only sees the power users and doesn’t seem to care about anyone else (for my proof I present Microsoft Works). Microsoft just doesn’t realize that Office power users is not a growth market.

    1. Yes. I thought a few years ago that Google Docs was a threat to Microsoft. Although it has a fraction of the features that Office has, there are enough to satisfy a large percentage of Enterprise users. When not only buy a CAL for just the users that need something as powerful as Office? Free Google Docs for everyone else. The only reason would be to prevent Google from mining your corporate data. (One wonders what MS is doing with your Office docs stored on its own cloud.)

  7. In some ways I think this heralds Apples answer to the tablet/laptop dilemma.

    Soon there will be no dilemma. Soon the thought of taking a full laptop with you will be a quaint, archaic way of doing things.

    If you want to go portable, you really don’t sacrifice software functionality for the tablets portability. Software functionality going forward (from Apple and others if they follow the leader) will be the same. Functionality for anything you want to do on the go will be more than handled.

    The iPad was a mobile reset, and it will grow in power and richness while maintaining a light, touch first UI. Which is all you will need for mobile.

    Power is adequate as well. With the A7 SoC being more powerful than a 2010 Macbook Air:

    Geekbench 3 Benchmark (Higher Is Better)
    Device: Single core – – – Multi core
    iPad Air: 1,476 – – – 2,673
    MB Air: 871 – – – 1,438

    Think about that. The iPad Air has nearly double the performance capability of a 2010 iPad Air.

    It is hard to really argue that the HW is holding anyone back for mobile usage. It might get even harder to argue if an even more capable “iPad Pro” makes an appearance soon.

    1. The iPad Air has nearly double the performance capability of a 2010 iPad Air.

      should be

      The iPad Air has nearly double the performance capability of a 2010 Macbook Air.

    2. Defendor is very correct. Watch for Microsoft to panic-release an “Office for iPad”, and eventually for Android, but to presume that they can dash something out without making a genuinely iOS version of Office. As a result, they may spend the next two years trying to come up with the tools everyone really wants to see…unless, of course, some group beats them to the punch.

      What Microsoft is likely to overestimate is how much people remain tied to their products. Now that Windows is no longer “the gold standard”, it can’t prop up Office.

      Finally, if Apple iterates and constantly improves iWork, just as they did with Final Cut and Logic, Apple may decide to render the death knell to Office personally.

  8. Apple continues to skate to where the puck is going. Future hardware growth (and profits) at Apple will continue to be driven by iphone and ipad (mobile devices). Mac is the past. iPod may soon be gone. All the key innovations this year are laying the foundation for the future and are focussed on mobile: iOS7, A7 chip, M7 motion sensor, touch ID.
    iWork and iLife changes are driven by this focus on mobile. The cost to Apple was many power users on Macs lost features and are cranky. The market Apple is skating to is so much larger than the group they are pissing off. These are the hard choices that Apple continues to make. These choices give me comfort that Apple will continue to adapt and thrive in the future.

    1. Don’t miss the fact that Apple also has Intel on the run. It looks like the A8 may be on Intel’s 14nm process, which will sharply accelerate their advantages in both performance and power consumption. They are also putting out government feelers on whether there would be an anti-trust reaction to a large acquisition…I’m thinking Apple would do well to own their own fab company and Krznich is looking for a way to salvage his situation.

  9. Great article, but I sense that you are not really an iWork user, when you say that iWork is enough for the average Joe. iWork is much better than Office in many ways. I use Numbers everyday on my iPhone 5 BTW, in bus going back and forth to work on top of that. So I guess I’m the one guy. I prefer Numbers because you can have multiple tables on the same sheet, -just that- the hell with tabs! Of course at work, we use Excel, and people don’t complain, they just accept it, like winter I guess. The problem with expressing how iWork is better than Office is that most of time that stuff you can’t put into words easily. Like the way Pages handles graphics, I mean it’s soooo much easier… It does not mean anything until you really try both products side-by-side, and even then how do you say it? Office 2013 is still the same program from 15 years ago with a different look. It’s not evolving, it changes its look once in a while, but it’s frozen in time. Think about the “refresh” button in Excel, all the issues with Word templates and addins, I mean, this is ancient plumbing. iWork on the other hand is such a relief to work with. Everything feels like a new modern approach to DTP. Well now people will be able to discover it for free, Amen to that. Furthermore, you get the online version of iWork (probably the real reason why they removed some stuff), which is simply amazing. Beside, iWork is all XML inside the package, very flexible, easy access for power users and developers. It’s a better format, free from an ancient code base. So if this is not a direct challenge to Office what is? I sure hope it beats the crap out of Office…

    1. You’re right that iWork is not a primary tool for me. For writing, I use the WordPress editor (ugh!), Word, Byword (a markdown editor), and sometimes a LaTeX editor, depending on the task at hands. That said, I like Pages a lot; it just doesn’t fit my workflow very well.

      For spreadsheet work, I use Excel. The ability of Numbers to present independent tables on a single sheet is a great feature. But lots of folks find that the lack of depth in functions and the lack of support for macros seriously limiting relative to Excel.

      I do my best to avoid using any of these on my phone. I just find the display too small to be useful. With Excel, I’m really not happy on anything smaller than a 27″ monitor. But whatever works for you is great.

      1. Hi Steve, you should tell those folks that OSX comes with AppleScript, which is way more powerful than VBA/WHS in my opinion; any app can provide a dictionary to the scripting engine. Isn’t it a dream come true? I mean, really, you cannot say “lack of support for macros”, ’cause what Numbers & others offer in terms of programmability is a lot more advanced. I believe Office for Mac does ship with AppleScript dictionaries too. Also, maybe some functions are not in Numbers, but the Numbers’ help and UI for formulas is what Excel should have become over the years don’t you think? it groups your parameters using color overlay on the fly, autocomplete and autosuggest. That makes creating complex formula a snap. I find doing formula work in Numbers much more productive, and fun!

        What I do on my phone is not start a new document, it’s working on existing ones, reviewing, makings changes, add ideas, comment … I prefer doing that on my iPhone now, instead of sitting at my desk. And since I have to kill two hours everyday on bus rides, I try to be productive.

      2. Actually, I must recant; I just saw that Numbers 3 DOES NOT have a dictionary, to my complete surprise. I hope they reconsider! Sorry about that, and I concede your point. Numbers, -for now-, lacks macro support.

  10. Microsoft has not made one product that it can call its own creation. For being such a huge player in the tech industry, there is not one product I can think of that Microsoft created on its own and set up a new avenue. Everything it has done has been in response to some product that began to gain popularity. So long as the Wintel train chugged along during the 90s, no one could touch Microsoft. They really did not feel like innovating on a large scale or come up with a revolutionary product for all the money they made. Apple always wanted to bring something new. They might have picked up things from here and there, but they set new trends in the market on many occasions. Microsoft has always played catch up with everything introduced. In the past it could run over and crush everyone on their paths and own the whole thing for themselves. Now I am glad the times have changed. Apple and Google have emerged strong and creative, having similar ideals and yet vastly different in approach. I wish Microsoft was like Google from the start. They resembled the politburo of the Communist nations where they made whatever they liked and spent their time crushing any creative effort and gobbling it all up for themselves. The Soviet era ended. And likewise, Microsoft’s dominance has ended. Now they have to think of survival by changing their philosophy of business. Hopefully they will adapt soon once Lex Luther leaves the company at the end of the year. I hope they will hang a window on his neck and send him home.

  11. Great article.
    Also agree with sentiment by ThierryL regarding Office vs iWork. I too use Office at work and iWork at home. Office is so entrenched in business & gov, and there is currently no real substitute for it.

    As pointed out by DarwinPhish and others, it is mostly overkill for the average consumer, expensive, and bloated, so much so that even schools started adopting the rudimentary, unwieldy, and feature-set-limited Google Docs. I suspect that for over 90% of all use cases by volume (business+ gov + edu + consumer, etc), pages would be more than sufficient and probably even better (ease of use, flexibility, multiplatform, browser versions, free, etc.) than office (sorry no study to quote here, just personal sense). In addition, Apple just made a statement that all the missing features will be added back in the next 6 months, and that they have plans to iteratively build it up into a robust suite over time, where 3-5 years from now, they could potentially be in the driver seat with these apps too. [Apple, having done a massive & fantastic 64 bit from-the-ground up re-write, instead of getting the praise for their hard work and long term planning, always seem to shoot themselves in the foot by not letting everyone know what is going on, or their future plans; hope the recent trend disclosing plans ala FCPX, and now iWork continues]

    Having learnt over decades of vulnerable dependency on other companies (Adobe’s initial reluctance to support OS X, later Cocoa, and transition to 64 bit; similarly MS and Office; and the myriad of other developers who were abandoning the mac platform in prior years, and as recently as 2 years ago with google maps), Apple is not likely to make itself so vulnerable ever again; thus all the apps including iLife, iWork, maps, etc, specifically designed and optimized for their own platforms.

    Regarding the comment by Frank Shaw, I find it very troubling for a company which is in real identity crisis at the moment. If he is saying this for the benefit of the technocrati, and mostly cheap PR, I understand. If however this is a true belief among MS executives, it really is extremely troubling as it suggests that they are really not taking this real threat in earnest, and suggests that they haven’t learn the lessons from others who had similarly disparaged or ridiculed Apple and its products over the recent years including Dell, Palm, Blackberry, MS (Balmer’s reaction to the original iPhone), etc., or outright antagonized instead of collaborating with them such as Adobe (e.g. Pixelmator preferred demo software for Apple), Google (maps), etc.

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