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Apple's revamp of Numbers for iOS brings slicker interface; still lacks features vs. Excel

by Derek Walter

November 7 2013

Can Numbers match up against the touch-friendly Excel on the Surface?
Can Numbers match up against the touch-friendly Excel on the Surface?

The newest version of Numbers is part of Apple’s long-awaited refresh of its iWork suite. Numbers joins Pages and Keynote in getting a visual overhaul and tighter integration with the Mac versions. (4 out of 5 stars)

The new apps went live last month after Apple announced the changes at its special event to promote the iPad Air and other hardware refreshes.

Additionally, the iWork apps are now free for anyone purchasing a new iOS device or Mac. This move gives the company a stronger productivity ecosystem in which to greater compete with Microsoft Office. By linking your devices to iCloud, you can work on the same file and collaborate with others across a Mac, iPhone, or iPad.

Yet some have complained Apple's iWork suite has taken a collective step backwards with the updates to the Mac version. In order to bring the long overdue feature parity between the mobile and desktop versions, Apple has cut out some features.

(Left, screen shot: Microsoft Excel is still the spreadsheet to beat)

There is a rather long thread on the Apple support page dedicated to criticizing the transition. Complaints focus on the loss of categories view, headers/footers, setting margins and the edit toolbar. Also, one must upgrade the OS X version of Numbers in order for it to work properly with the iOS variant.

Numbers power users, at least on the Mac side, have every right to be disappointed by seeing features no longer there, but for iPad users this new version is definitely an improvement. It's also true that Apple (and other companies) have a habit of stripping out particular features in order to accomplish a larger goal. In this case it was was compatibility between iOS and OS X.

My hope is that eventually this will eventually turn into a 'less is more' benefit as features are added to both the iOS and OS X versions and compatibility maintained. (Apple said this week it plans to restore 18 features to the Mac OS X iWork suite over the next 6 months - Editor)

Meantime, the iOS update makes a solid application even better looking and offers wider usability with a more consistent interface from desktop to mobile. And the collaboration features bring it closer to competing with Office 365 and Google Drive - although the simultaneous editing found in those suites are both still superior.

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Numbers versus Office

While the battle for market share in the tablet space with Microsoft isn’t even close, one of the biggest selling points Microsoft has going is the inclusion of Office on Surface and other Windows 8 tablets.  

Those who need the full suite of features offered by Excel will find this to be the most compelling option. Office on the Surface has the more extended features that a power user would need, including a larger selection of business-focused templates such as billing statements and loan amortization schedules.

Excel also offers significantly more formulas and multiple calculation options. When using the Surface you are presented with the full capabilities of Excel, with the option to operate in a touch-friendly mode that expands the menu sizes for finger or stylus input. Also, the Surface includes pen options to mark up a file with digital ink.

The question is, however, how much spreadsheet number crunching one actually wants to do on a tablet? While recently using Excel on a Surface I felt that it was pretty cool that I could do all this spreadsheet work on such a mobile device, but I wasn't sure how often I would want to do it with this form factor.

Numbers will, however, likely get the job done for many situations. In fact, it does offer a few advantages. Because input is primarily through the on-screen keyboard, users can take advantage of the 10-key layout and other Numbers-specific commands that are part of the design. Also, many of the templates will cover the vast majority of use cases, creating attractive reports and data representations.

Also, those unpopular feature cuts have come about as part of a process to make Numbers flow more consistently from the Mac to iOS to the beat iCloud web versions. Nearly gone are all of those notifications one used to get about a particular feature or data set not moving properly across platforms. 

Just as it did with Final Cut Pro, which created a similar stir from power users after features were cut, look for Apple to rebuild Numbers and the rest of its iWork suite into more feature-rich applications. But as of today, Numbers already will likely meet the needs of most users who are looking to take even more productivity from their PC and move it to an iPad.

(Which vendors have the best practices to synchronize, share, and manage files and other content? Download this Forrester report to find out.)

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