Why Apple should be more open with iWork document formats

When Apple introduced iWork a few years back it offered a slick, but limited wordprocessor/text layout tool called Pages and a rather more impressive presentation tool known as Keynote. It was a good start, but it was hardly a challenge to Microsoft Office 2004 for Mac. In its iWork ’08 iteration both of these apps were improved significantly and a spreadsheet application was added, making the suite a more viable contender. I was impressed enough to buy a copy, mainly for Keynote, as I had some important presentations coming up. At the 2009 MacWorld in January, Apple introduced iWork ’09, the most impressive iWork yet and, for my limited needs at least, easily a replacement for MS Office (which I haven’t used in anger for years anyway) and OpenOffice.org, which in version 3.0 runs natively and rather nicely on the Mac.

I like iWork ’08 very much. Most of my actual writing needs are met by a combination of Scrivener and Nisus Writer, but if there is layout required, Pages comes into play. For dealing with figures I love the simplicity of Numbers, especially the way it allows you to lay out tables in a human-friendly way. For presentations Keynote is the best in the business. iWork is also good value for money, but there is one thing standing in the way of me adopting it as my primary office suite: proprietary file formats.

I don’t object as such to Apple deciding on its own format. iWork apps operate differently from every other office suite and if Apple thinks it can do better with its own format, well, who are we to judge? The problem is Apple’s format is the default and you can’t change it. It’s possible to save your documents in a few other formats (.rtf, .pdf, .doc etc.), but only by exporting them separately. Worse still, documents saved in iWork ’09 format can’t be read by iWork ’08. Not even in a ‘You know you should really upgrade, but since you haven’t you’ll have to put up with this mess’ kind of way. I don’t believe there is a technical reason for this, but I suppose it doesn’t matter too much because I would never consider saving anything in the iWork formats if I thought for a moment someone else (including future me) might ever need to look at it. It also means a lot of things might have to be saved twice in two different formats, wasting disk space and creating a version control problem. It keeps me from using iWork more often.

This is completely out of step with the way things are going. Even Microsoft, hardly a paragon of virtue in this regard, is adding ODF support in Office 14. OpenOffice.org, which is available for free, can open and save a multitude of different and competing formats. It just isn’t good enough any more. The online iWork.com service looks like a slick way of presenting online documents, but iWork itself has a fraction of a fraction of the office suite market and making life more inconvenient for users than it needs to be is not the way to improve on that position.

It also looks weak. Part of the reason for iWork09’s online features is that they will make it easier to collaborate with people who don’t use iWork09 or, heaven forfend, don’t use Macs. But the point about using a Mac is that Mac users choose to be Mac users. They do so because they find Macs better, easier, more powerful; that’s why they have a reputation for evangelising. So they are not going to buy a Dell running Windows Vista just because iWork doesn’t have online collaborative tools, but they might choose OpenOffice.org to run on their Macs if they can’t easily save their work in ODF or MS Office formats or have to pay for the privilege of working with others. If some kind of half-hearted lock in is all Apple has to persuade its customers to stay it might as well give up on iWork right now and that would be a shame.

So come on Apple, what’s the problem with offering other formats in the Save As menu and at least giving us the option of using an open format? You have nothing to lose and a whole new market to gain.

More on iwork.com: Online Fonts

octidextro.us has some interesting speculation about whether Apple is planning on making iwork.com deliver fonts universally online. As users of online word processors such as Google Docs will know, the range of fonts available is limited to those likely to be available on any computer (not many). And as any editor of technical documents and books will know, fonts have to passed around with documents if you want the person on the receiving end to see special characters and symbols, or even just an unusual typeface. Siobhan and I had some trouble with this while we were working on Key Ideas. So what happens if you want to use iwork.com to distribute a document with a specialist font? In iwork.com the primary document will be ok, because it seems Apple have decided to make the viewable ‘web version’ something like a PDF. But what about the downloadable wordprocessor-compatible versions? This could be the answer and if it is, it’s a huge breakthrough:

In the excitement about Apple’s beta version of iWork.com – the web-based document sharing/collaborating feature of their iWork suite – people have been asking about fonts. Specifically, what happens when you use a font that that isn’t available on the receiving end of the shared document?

I thought immediately of the news that the nightly builds of Webkit [the underlying software behind Apple’s Safari web browser, Google’s Chrome, and others] support downloadable fonts. All it takes is a couple lines of CSS and, as Jobs would say, “Boom.”  [Link]

Of course this doesn’t just apply to iwork.com. When Safari and Chrome catch up with Webkit a wide range of fonts could also be available in Google Docs and Zoho.