iWork for iCloud: Refined Google Docs rival enhances your iOS productivity

October 3, 2013
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Apple launched the first public beta of iWork for iCloud.com when it announced iOS 7 in early September and promised that it would be open to anyone with a valid Apple ID. The product is due to go live this fall.

The feel of iOS 7 on your desktop

I’ve been testing the consumer beta of the product for a while now and there is one thing that struck me pretty early on; iWork for iCloud is going to be a welcome addition for all iOS users.

I’ll move onto the specific editing tools shortly, but first let me tackle the solution’s accessibility, which is the big news here.

It’s common knowledge that Apple’s iWork apps were previously only available on iOS and OS X devices, and this was somewhat restrictive if you were away from your Mac, iPad, iPod Touch or iPhone.

That’s where iWork for iCloud comes in and Apple’s decision to bring the three productivity apps to the browser (Chrome, IE, Safari are supported from launch) is an admission of sorts that Apple owners do also use non-Apple products.

That’s not to say that iWork for iCloud is cast off from the Apple experience, however. The solution has the same typography and parallax design as on iOS 7, and the apps themselves behave similarly to their iOS counterparts.

[The design of iWork for iCloud has recently been tweaked to mirror that of iOS 7. Previously, the solution sported a rather uninspiring grey interface with iOS 6 style icons.]

In fact, this is essentially iCloud but with extra icons bolted on. There is Mail, Contacts, Calendar, Notes, Reminders and Find My Phone on the landing page, and now additional spots for Pages, Numbers and Keynote. Each of these currently has a yellow banner over the top to indicate that they are in public beta phase.

Your Apple ID is detailed in the right-hand corner where there are also options to visit settings or to log-out. The question mark icon takes you to the iCloud website for extra information.

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Simple, fast and effective editing

As you’d expect, there are a lot of similarities between iWork for iCloud and iWork for iOS, but there are also some subtle changes too.

On launching Pages, Numbers or Keynote for iWork, you’ll see a dark grey landing page, which is filled with post-it note instructions, a plus button for adding a new document and a preview image of any recently-created documents, along with their file name and creation date.

With all three applications, you can choose between various templates (Pages includes leftfield choices like party invites, thank you letters and business proposals; Numbers has options to create a checklist, loan comparison or budget) and then jump straight into editing.

By this stage, you’ll note that Apple has made a slight but significant change in how you edit documents.

Whereas before you had a dark brown colored toolbar at the top with various options for editing text, the toolbar on iWork for iCloud is black and has just three simple icons for Text, Shape and Image.

This is essentially the primary toolbar, with a secondary dialog box on the right letting you drill-down into further options. For example, if you wanted to create and edit a textbook on Pages, you would tap the Text icon at the top and then edit by colors, borders, text and size in the right-hand toolbar. The same process applies to adding shapes or changing text, but the Image button is a quick one-step process for browsing locally-stored photos.

As a result of this navigation tweak, you’ll often find yourself bouncing between the document, and the two toolbars, for editing work, a slight change from the traditional ‘up-down’ method when working on Pages, Word or Google Docs.

Keynote also offers something different with a left-sided bar vertically showing your created slides. You can add to these by using the plus button at the bottom of the screen.

The good: Touch controls & Office compatibility

For many people, iWork for iCloud will be a godsend. It’s easy to use, convenient to access and syncs your content automatically via iCloud to iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch or Mac.

There are other areas where it excels too. For example, you can drag and drop Word, Excel or PowerPoint files into iWork for iCloud to keep on working, and you can share in-document with the ‘share’ icon. (Note: You’ll need to set-up iCloud Mail to do this). Navigation was a breeze throughout my testing.

Resizing or including photos is a simple drag-and-drop process in Keynote, while adjusting cell sizes in Numbers takes no time at all. There are also easy options for adjusting what kind of table you want or formatting the cell data. Word processing on Pages feels as natural on the iOS client and it’s certainly no inferior to Google Docs, Quickoffice or any other solution offering Microsoft Office editing.

The bad: Slow & no collaboration tools

Although iWork for iCloud is almost perfect, I have some very minor complaints, most of which could be rectified in future updates.

One of which is that the document page is always opened in a standalone browser, unlike Google Docs where you can bounce between other open tabs. This isn’t a big deal but could be an annoyance if you’d rather flip between tabs than windows.

Another minor annoyance is that the font doesn’t automatically change on selection like it does in MS Word and that the alignment bar can be hard to shift. The grey landing page on all three apps is rather bland, and I wouldn't be surprised if this was changed nearer to launch.

But by far my biggest concerns with iWork for iCloud are speed and that it is purpose-built for the single user. On the speed front, there was some lag when jumping into applications, although this should improve on public release, but a greater concern is the lack of collaboration tools.

Sure, iWork for iCloud is great for editing content on the go and syncing the up-to-date document back to your device, but it’s not so good for multi-user collaboration, an area where others — like Google Docs and even the new Quip iPad app — really excel.

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