iWork for iCloud Beta — First Look and Early Review

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Yesterday, I was invited to try the iWork for iCloud beta. Just earlier in the day, Apple started sending out beta invitations to non-developers, so it did not take me long to get an invite. I was excited to try it out.

iWork for iCloud, which was announced by Apple last month at its WWDC developers conference, is a version of its iWork office suite that lives in the web browser–you can access, edit, and create documents, spreadsheets, in Internet Explorer, Chrome, or Apple’s Safari (but not Firefox) on any computer. In addition, Apple promises that these are some of the most advanced web software ever made, with an experience more akin to a native application than a web app (which have typically been more sparse and less feature-rich).

I’ve been looking for something like iWork for iCloud. You see, I primarily create and edit documents, spreadsheets, and presentations on three devices — my laptop (running Windows 7), my iPad with Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard cover, and my work PC (Windows XP). I only have Microsoft Office on my laptop; my work computer has Libre Office (and I can’t install new software on it), and my iPad has iWork for iPad and any other apps I choose to download. I want a service that will let me create documents, spreadsheets, and presentations on any device, have them be compatible with all those devices, and sync them all automatically.

Sometimes, that seems like a tall order, but I think this is a common dilemma for users who need to work with various types of documents and spreadsheets across platforms. So, can iWork for iCloud fill this need? Read on to find out.

Before I get to iWork, let’s see where some others have tried and failed to meet my criteria.

Microsoft Office is great on my laptop, has an online mode that really isn’t bad (though it is a little feature limited, and locks me into their SkyDrive service) for when I’m at work, but there are no great options for editing on iPad (most office apps I’ve tried aren’t great, are expensive, and editing in SkyDrive in the browser does not work well).

Google Drive is solid in the browser for my PCs, and has good collaboration features, but I’ve always had issues with the offline mode for when I want to work away from the internet. On the iPad, the Google Drive app lets you edit documents and spreadsheets, but not presentations. I find that the app works fine for editing documents, but is slow and difficult when it comes to editing spreadsheets.

There are also lots of great note taking and text editing apps with web interfaces, like Simplenote, but most of the time these are only useful for plain text and I need something with more features for my work.

iWork is already the best office suite for the iPad and iPhone. It is the most intuitive, feature, packed, and things such as touch controls and special keyboards to enter numbers and formulas in Numbers make using the three apps much easier for when you don’t have a keyboard paired to the iPad.

iWork for iCloud would give me the ability to create and edit any of my documents on any computer with a web browser and have them sync automatically with iWork on my iPad, which could finally give the answer I’ve been looking for.

I will go through each of the programs in turn, but before I get there I will discuss some general impressions. Keep in mind that iWork for iCloud is still in beta — changes will certainly get made and features will be added prior to its release for the public. (For the record, all my testing was done in Google’s Chrome browser, but the experience should be similar in Internet Explorer and Safari).

icloudIt looks good and is intuitive. When you first login to the beta, you are greeted with the same main screen you will be familiar with if you’ve used iCloud in a browser in the past, but now there are three new icons–one each for Pages, Numbers, and Keynote. Clicking on one of those icons takes you to a screen that looks almost to the home screens for the corresponding iOS app, with a grid of documents on a grey background.Keynote Welcome Initially, a set of instructions will pop up telling you what each button does, but I found that I didn’t really need it because it was easy to figure everything out.Keynote Q Opening a document (or creating a new one) will open a new window for the editor. Everything makes sense and looks and feels like its iOS counterpart, which is to its credit (I have not used iWork for OS X, but so I do not know how similar it is to that.) It definitely feels like a step above the average web app

It’s fast. Everything happens very quickly in iWork for iCloud. Opening, editing, uploading, downloading, and syncing all happen very quickly. When you click or type, you see the changes on screen right away. It’s this kind of responsiveness that goes a long way towards making iWork for iCloud feel more like native software than a web app.

You’re stuck in iCloud, for better or worse. Numbers GridApple’s iCloud has taken a lot of heat for not being a seamless experience and having major syncing issues. At WWDC, Apple promised that it was working on it and that the experience would get better for users and developers. In the best case, files will sync seamlessly between devices running iOS, OS X and the web. But even then, it will never sync with Windows, Android, or any other OS. Additionally, file management is very basic, with your documents displayed on a grid, similar to an iOS homescreen. You can create iOS style folders with your documents… on iOS. In this beta, there are not yet any ways to create folders or rearrange your files like in the iOS apps. Additionally, there is as of yet no way to search for files. The simplicity of this approach is fine when you only have a few files, but I imagine that as you create files it will become hard to find what you’re looking for.

Syncing does happen quickly. In my experience, changes are synced almost immediately. Syncing happens noticeably more quickly here than on the iOS apps where sometimes you have to wait while everything syncs or there is a delay from opening the document to seeing the changes.

There are a lack of collaboration options. Can't ShareGoogle Drive (formerly Google Docs), which is this product’s closest direct competitor, is well known for its collaboration features that allow multiple users to create a document and see what others have changed. To be honest, I’ve rarely used this, since my workplace doesn’t use Google Drive and outside of work I don’t have much need to collaborate on documents. However, iWork for iCloud is completely missing any collaboration features, even rudimentary ones. These isn’t even a way to easily share files — when you click the share button, the only option you get is to email the file, and that only works if you have an @icloud email address set up. I don’t, so if I want to email the file I will need to download it to my computer and then attach it to an email.

There is no offline mode. pages templatesOne of the big advantages that native software like Microsoft Office or iWork for OS X has is that you can use it even when you’re not connected to the internet (I find I often try to get writing done on airplanes, for instance). Obviously, a web app is only ordinarily going to work when you’re online and in a browser. To try and make its Drive a bigger competitor to Office, Google has added an offline mode which allows users to access and edit documents when away from a connection. (However, it has never been as reliable or easy to use as I would like, and you have to select which documents you want available offline before you leave.) iWork for iCloud currently has no kind of offline mode (outside of just using iWork for OS X if you have a Mac), which means that working away from the internet is not possible.

Formatting issues are the same as iWork for iOS (and presumably, OS X). Not all formatting carries over across different office suites. I find this true for Libre Office, and I find this true for iWork. At the moment, most of the world still uses Microsoft Office, and I often have to deal with files created using Microsoft’s software. iWork will open Word, Excel, and Powerpoint documents, but formatting will not always carry over. I find this is especially true with Powerpoint. I think much of this has to do with fonts, as Calibri, the default font in Microsoft 2007 and later, is not present in iWork and gets changed and resized when imported. However, these issues are also present in the iOS versions of iWork, and I find documents look the identical between iOS and iCloud (as one would hope), so anything that works in iWork for iOS or OS X should work fine here.

There are many missing features. Chart EditingiWork for iCloud is still in beta, and as of now it’s missing many features. Some that are missing–but that we’re promised are coming–are printing, version history, editing charts and tables, sending a link to a document, and support for additional browsers. I’ve noticed additional missing features — many of which are present on the iOS versions — that I hope will also be added. I will discuss some of those in my sections on Pages, Numbers, and Keynote.

Pages

pagesPages looks like word processor, which helps it feel more like traditional software than something like Google Drive (Microsoft’s Office online also looks like a word processor). I’ve written this entire piece in Pages for iCloud. It has been a pleasure to use — everything happens quickly, is straightforward, and syncs right away. However, I have noticed several major missing features, some of which I hope are added before this leaves beta. For one, there appears to be no way to add footnotes or endnotes. This can be a deal breaker for many, as any academic paper is going to require these. Another missing feature is the ability to track changes. I often use the track changes feature in Microsoft Office when editing documents, but it is nowhere to be found in the iCloud beta. Footnotes, endnotes and track changes all appear in the iOS version of Pages, so I hope they will eventually appear in the iCloud version. Finally, I can’t figure out a way to see the word count of my document. I used to have to write papers with a strict word count, and knowing how many words I had used was crucial. (I feel like this review is long, but who knows how long?!) For me, these missing features really limit Pages usefulness.

Numbers

Madden BracketNumbers seems relatively solid. I quite like Numbers for iOS, and all of the spreadsheets I brought over seemed to work without a hitch. I tried some basic formulas, and nothing seemed to be broken. (I will say though that I am not an Excel power user.) The biggest missing feature, as already mentioned above, is charts and graphs. Existing charts cannot be edited (though they will remain in the document intact), and new charts cannot be added. Apple has already promised that this feature is coming. Once it does, I would feel fine about using Numbers for the tasks that I need spreadsheets for.

Keynote

sample keynoteI never used Keynote for iOS much. It was always a bigger pain to create a presentation on the iPad than on a computer, and I encountered the formatting issues I described above going back and forth with Powerpoint. (At my work the thing to do is keep your Powerpoint on a thumbdrive, which you can plug into the computer that is attached to the projector. Those computers always have powerpoint.) It is definitely easier to create Keynote presentations on iCloud than iOS, due to the fact that you’re at a computer with a trackpad/mouse and keyboard, though the formatting issues persist. Adding images and text, formatting, moving things around, and rotating objects were all easy and surprisingly fast. In addition, things will snap into place, which is a feature I like in the newer versions of Powerpoint. However, this time, the missing feature appeared to be animations. There are nice transitions between slides, but no animations of objects on the slides. In Powerpoint, I often use animations so that only one bullet point or picture appears at a time (to help focus on one thing at a time). This isn’t yet possible with this version of Keynote. Nonetheless, I would feel okay using Keynote for presentation creation, but only if I were in a situation where I knew I would be able to use my computer for the presentation (or a computer with a modern browser) and a steady internet connection.

Wrap Up

iWork for iCloud beta is a suite of some of the nicest web apps that I’ve yet used. They’re fast, fluid, and good looking. However, as befits the beta in the name, they’re still missing major features, many of which are going to be a deal breakers for a lot of people. Until Apple addresses some of these, as they’ve promised to on several, I can’t see myself using iWork for iCloud frequently. However, I will be checking back in on it, and it may yet turn into that ideal solution I’m looking for.

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