Apple’s WWDC Sleeper Story: iWork for iCloud

Apple's browser-based office suite looks promising -- which could be big news even if you don't care about office suites.

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Apple's Roger Rosner demos iWork for iCloud's Numbers spreadsheet at WWDC on June 10, 2013

How many news stories have there been recapping all the news from Apple’s WWDC keynote yesterday? Gazillions, if not more. And while I haven’t read all of them, I’m virtually positive that not a single one led with one bit from the middle of the event: Apple is getting ready to release iWork for iCloud, a fully browser-based version of its productivity suite, which includes the Pages word processor, Numbers spreadsheet and Keynote presentation tool.

The fact that iWork for iCloud is being treated like a secondary story isn’t a shocker. Word processors, spreadsheets and presentation tools are not the stuff of headline news in 2013. But I, for one, was dazzled. iWork for iCloud looks…well, very much like the OS X and iOS versions of the suite. Which means it’s slick and beautiful. Even spreadsheets are eye-popping, with gorgeous charting features. The service supports Microsoft Office file formats and has access to documents stored on iCloud by the OS X and iOS versions of the suite. And everything works in Internet Explorer and Chrome on Windows, making this the first version of iWork that runs on non-Apple devices. Developers have access to a preview version right now; a public beta will roll out later this year.

The usual disclaimers apply: It’s dangerous to judge anything based on an onstage presentation, since products that demo beautifully sometimes don’t work very well in real life, or are missing critical features. And iWork for iCloud is reminiscent of a previous Apple effort called, which it announced with similar fanfare in 2009 as a beta, then killed last year having never fully rolled it out.

Still, even if you don’t care about online productivity suites — or are perfectly happy with Google Docs or Microsoft’s Office Web Apps¬†— iWork for iCloud has intriguing implications. Even among Apple fans, the conventional wisdom is pretty much that the company¬†doesn’t understand the Internet and doesn’t know how to create first-rate web-based services. That may be a tad harsh, but there’s no question that Apple is most comfortable building native software that runs on operating systems it’s designed itself. (As Steve Jobs was fond of saying, the company likes to build “the whole widget.”)

But if iWork for iCloud is great, it will prove that Apple can and will create great web-based apps. Which means that the notion of praying that it will reimagine iTunes as a meaner, leaner browser-based service isn’t hopelessly unrealistic. It’ll even seems plausible that Apple might come up with fresh new ideas and choose to release them as web services rather than native apps.

By building apps in the browser, Apple can reach a rather large market that it hasn’t devoted much attention to lately: Windows users. Odds are that we’ll never see a major new Windows application from Apple — it stopped updating Safari for Windows¬†— but serious browser apps are by definition platform-neutral. (At least for the most part: Apple didn’t mention Firefox or Opera among the browsers it’s planning to support.)

And here’s a wacky idea: web apps could also be a way for Apple to quietly, unofficially reach out to Android users without having to acknowledge the fact that it’s reaching out to Android users. (I used to wonder whether Apple might dabble in Android apps as it once did in Windows software, but the competition is so fierce and personal that the notion now seems unthinkable.) The company could, for instance, create a phone- and tablet-friendly version of iWork for iCloud that just happened to work on Android devices as well as iOS ones.

O.K., I’m getting carried away. It’s nice to think, though, that Apple will eventually beat its rep for being bad at the web — and that iWork for iCloud might be the first clear piece of evidence that good things are one their way.