August 8, 2007

iWork ’08: Finally an Alternative to Office?

Yesterday, Apple released iWork ’08 which included the much anticipated and rumored spreadsheet application dubbed “Numbers”. That’s the most exciting part of the release, in my opinion, and it’s lack of inclusion with previous versions of iWork is a big reason Mac users haven’t taken to it rather than Microsoft Office. I’ve never been an iWork user, but have tried them out each release hoping for enough features and cross application consistency to make it worthy as my main office software. It hasn’t, until yesterday’s announcement about Numbers. Numbers seems to put Excel table like functionality into a page layout application. It makes sense for those who have used Excel to create multi-table/chart/picture documents, which I don’t do, or for the home user. It seems to do these very well, and has a sidebar (rather than Excel tabs) to access pages (or in xls terms, “sheets”) and elements within each page. I like how tables start from nothing and grow from there rather than how Excel defaults to something like 5000 rows and hundreds of columns or something… you don’t work with more than you want to. First thing an Office user will ask, is how compatible is it with documents created in Word and Excel. I opened up a few of my .doc and .xls files and received error warnings on each, mostly having to do with fonts. The error dialog box is clever and actually helpful listing exactly what the problem is and, in my case the name(s) of the missing fonts, so that I know exactly what to fix if I feel it’s necessary. Here’s a picture of the same document, originally a Word document, side by side with iWork (on the left):

The documents are nearly identical. The only difference being a very slight difference in line-height. The pages’ content didn’t all end and start at the exact same place in Pages as it did in the original document. Slightly more complex documents with headers and footers, page breaks and embedded tables worked fine too. The only thing I haven’t been able to test is what happens when Word or Excel has macros (which should be abolished, imo). I’m sure they don’t work, but then again, they don’t belong in a document or spreadsheet to begin with. Rant: It’s just as bad as when Word is used to design and create a web page. A super, and slick, addition to the iWork applications is a text formatting bar. The OS X text panel is great and it’s nice that it’s consistent across all Coca applications (consistency = good), but it’s not quick and easy like the standard “BIU” bar. iWork has it now… hope it makes it into other similar applications as a standard. Here’s a screenshot (chopped in half to fit it in this article):

All in all, iWork looks and works great. I don’t think anyone who already has and uses Office for Mac should uninstall it and go 100% iWork until they try it out and are fully comfortable… it is quite different and will take some getting used to. However, it is exciting to see a reasonably priced Office suite that contains the features the average user wants, without the bloat of more. I’ll be giving it a try in day-to-day work and see how it handles things. I think I’ll be happy with the results… only time will tell.


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