Back to School: Apple’s iWork Hits the Browser

Apple's slick word processor, spreadsheet and presentation package are now web services.

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Apple's browser-based version of Pages, part of the iWork for iCloud

In my last post, I fantasized about having an iPad when I was in college three decades (gulp) ago. Today’s students don’t have to fantasize about using an iPad for schoolwork — it exists, and it’s tremendously useful. And oddly enough, one way Apple is making it more useful is by introducing a new suite of web apps that don’t even work on an iPad.

The web apps in question are Pages, Numbers and Keynote, the components which make up the productivity suite called iWork. Already available for the iPad, iPhone and Mac, they’re going online as iWork for iCloud, a version that works in desktop browsers on Windows PCs and Macs.

Apple announced iWork for iCloud at its WWDC keynote in June. It then rolled out a beta version to developers and has been gradually allowing in other iCloud users. Soon, the company says, it’ll let in the remaining iCloud users in the U.S. who don’t yet have access. It hasn’t announced pricing details, but for now, at least, the service is free, and still in beta.

So how does iWork for iCloud make the iPad more useful, especially since students, and the rest of us, don’t lack for other browser-based productivity apps — most notably those included in Google Docs and Microsoft‘s Office Web Apps? Basically, it allows you to create word-processing documents, spreadsheets and presentations on an iPad and then easily work with them on any Internet-connected Windows or Mac computer — in a computer lab, a dorm room or wherever. All versions of the iWork apps support the Documents in the Cloud feature, which lets you store files in a single online repository so all your stuff is available everywhere.

By making Pages, Numbers and Keynote, and the documents you create in them, readily available on any computer, iWork for iCloud makes it a lot more feasible to work on an iPad without having to convert documents back and forth into Microsoft Office format. (That said, it does import and export in Word, Excel and PowerPoint, still an essential feature for any productivity suite.) It’s the first time that the apps have been available at all on Windows, and the first time that Mac users have had access to them without paying for the OS X versions — which run $20 apiece for Pages, Numbers and Keynote. (The iOS versions are $10 each.) It makes the whole iWork proposition more appealing than it’s ever been.

If you’ve used any other version of any of the iWork apps, you already have a good sense of what the iCloud editions are like. That’s in part because the look and feel is quite similar, but also because they all have the same emphasis as earlier incarnations.

Compared to other productivity suites, they don’t have the most features — which is particularly logical in this instance, given that Google Docs and the Office Web Apps have such a formidable head start. But the iWork apps are beautifully polished, and they’ve got tools that let you easily create beautifully polished creations, such as word-processing documents with fancy typography and images and presentations with fluid transitions. They’re some of the most ambitious, zippy, desktop-like web apps Apple or anyone else has created. Put your browser into full-screen mode, and it’s easy to forget that you’re not using really well-designed conventional software.

I hope that certain missing features show up before long. Numbers can display existing charts but doesn’t let you create new ones. (Apple says it’ll get that feature soon.) None of the apps let you print directly, although you can e-mail yourself a PDF and print that out. I can’t find any way to get a word count in Pages, and Keynote has a 100MB limit on presentation file size. And there are no collaborative editing tools, as there are in Google Docs and the Office Web Apps.

With any luck, Apple will beef up iWork for iCloud swiftly, filling in the biggest current holes and continuing to update it more often than it has the OS X version of the suite. (The OS X version of the iWork apps are still known as Pages ’09, Numbers ’09 and Keynote ’09, although they’ve gotten some additional stuff, such as Documents in the Cloud support, more recently than that name suggests; Apple says that it’ll release updated versions later this year.)

Even in its initial beta version, iWork for iCloud is impressive. I think a lot of students will love it — especially if Apple includes it as part of every free iCloud account. More thoughts once it’s officially available to everybody.