What’s going on with iWork?

In the unlikely event that you haven’t yet heard, let me be the one to break the news to you: the new iWork ’13 apps for OS X have been “dumbed down.” At least that’s the prevailing view. Distressed at the loss of numerous significant features from the previous iWork ’09 versions, including vanishing AppleScript support, many users have lamented that the new apps amount to “an unmitigated disaster.”

At the same time, other users have just as strongly cautioned against over-reacting to these changes. For example, in his Macworld review of Keynote 6.0, Joe Kissell wrote:

 “Despite the missing features, it would be unfair to characterize Keynote 6 as being ‘dumbed down.’ Indeed, Apple has added splendid capabilities that make Keynote smarter in several respects.”

Matthew Panzarino, writing on TechCrunch, offered a similar reaction:

“Lots of folks are getting all worked up about iWork being ‘dumbed down,’ but it feels like a reset to me.”

These more benign interpretations emphasize that the new iWork ’13 apps are not really upgrades from the previous versions. Rather, they are entirely redesigned-from-the-ground-up new programs. Having to make this sort of drastic revision, especially within the inevitable time and resource constraints, almost guarantees that some features will get dropped along the way.

So why did Apple make such drastic changes? The obvious and conventional wisdom answer is that Apple wanted to bring parity and cross-platform compatibility to the OS X and iOS versions of the iWork apps. Doing this required a rewrite of the software. In this goal, almost everyone agrees that Apple succeeded. You can seamlessly move among the apps on each platform without skipping a beat. As Jeffery Battersby put it in his review of Pages for iOS:

“There is now no noticeable difference between all of Apple’s Pages apps.”

Or, as Nigel Warren explained:

 “The fact that iWork on the Mac has lost functionality isn’t because Apple is blind to power users. It’s because they’re willing to make a short-term sacrifice in functionality so that they can create a foundation that is equal across the Mac, iOS, and web versions.”

Given the tortured history of cross-platform file syncing among iWork documents, this is great news. As for the lost features, the optimists expect them to return over time. There is certainly precedent for this expectation, most notably with Final Cut Pro X. Similarly, just last week, after the release of a new version of iMovie met with the same sorts of criticism, Apple promised that it will at least return the ability to import movie projects between iOS and Macs. Even better, Apple just announced that it intends to “reintroduce some of the [missing iWork] features in the next few releases.” [Update: See this Apple support article for more details.]

Still, there is a big question that remains: How far will this recovery go? Can we really expect that all or almost all of the MIA features will be restored? My answer is: No.

Given the admirable intent to maintain seamless cross-platform compatibility, Apple cannot restore features to the OS X versions of iWork apps unless those features can be matched on iOS devices, especially if the inconsistency would break the ability of a file to look and act the same on both platforms. Given the inherent limitations of iOS compared to OS X, including the more severe restrictions of sandboxing in iOS, this means that certain iWork ’09 features will be lost for a long long time. Perhaps forever.

As one example, I believe AppleScript falls into this category. There is no AppleScript in iOS, and I don’t expect this to change. As such, I doubt will we ever see any significant restoration of AppleScript in the OS X iWork apps. [Update: Despite Apple’s promise to “make improvements to AppleScript support” in future versions Keynote and Numbers, I don’t expect this to amount to much.] This doesn’t mean that Apple intends to entirely drop AppleScript from OS X. But it does mean a lessening of support for it going forward. There’s a chance that Apple might introduce some entirely new method of automation, one that works on both Macs and iOS devices. But I wouldn’t assign a high probability to this.

Apple’s actions here should not be a big surprise. They continue a trend that has been developing and growing over the past several years. Apple’s mobile devices have eclipsed Macs as the company’s primary source of revenue and profit. The result is that the evolution of OS X and OS X apps is driven by how well they integrate with iPhones and iPads.

Apple isn’t abandoning its power users. At least not yet. There’s a new Mac Pro coming (although it has already caused some grumbling due to its lack of internal expandability) and Apple continues to support apps such as Final Cut Pro. But these make up a shrinking portion of Apple’s revenue. And they live in an environment separate from concerns about iOS compatibility. There’s no iOS equivalent of Final Cut Pro.

The consumer market is Apple’s future, its “bread-and-butter.” Many analysts have predicted that, over the next several years, desktop machines — and perhaps even laptops— will all but vanish as users increasingly adopt tablets as their only computing device. To the extent that this happens, for any consumer Mac software that survives, compatibility with iOS devices will far outweigh any consideration about what “pro” features may be missing. Marco Tabini makes a similar point in a recent Macworld article:

 “…it’s also possible that Apple is ‘dumbing down’ its apps because the company believes that the kind of comprehensive software to which we have become accustomed will no longer belong in the personal computing landscape of the future.”

I agree. For the vast majority of users, what we used to do with apps such as iWork (and Microsoft Office, for that matter) will become an increasingly distant and irrelevant memory. What we expect from computing devices and how we interact them is undergoing a dramatic shift. Inexpensive, more focused, simple-to-use software is the currency of the day. The new iWork apps are not an aberration. Despite what concessions Apple may make going forward, Apple has no intention of reversing directions. Whether you call it “dumbing down” or “iOS-ification,” whether you view it as an overall positive or negative shift, this is where things are headed. Get on board, get out of the way, or get run over.

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2 Responses to What’s going on with iWork?

  1. Pingback: How to work with iWork's new file formats - Macworld Australia - Macworld Australia

  2. K. says:

    “…it’s also possible that Apple is ‘dumbing down’ its apps because the company believes that the kind of comprehensive software to which we have become accustomed will no longer belong in the personal computing landscape of the future.”

    When Apple developed and introduced the personal computer as we know it in the ’80s, it did so with the conviction that home users or inspired amateurs, are as much entitled to computers, and the freedom and capabilities that they provide to be creative and be productive. What this means, if is really what Apple is considering at the moment, is 180 degree turn that to my eyes at least betrays that fundamental mantra that made Apple what it is (or was) and made us want to buy those products. Sure, not all of us need Adobe Photoshop, but does that mean that we should move to crayon painting again?

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