iWork '08, AppleWorks...and the New iMacs

iWork i08 is out. The software suite consists of three applications: Pages (for word processing and page layout), Keynote (for presentations), and a new spreadsheet application called Numbers. The addition of a spreadsheet has led to an obvious question: How well does iWork stack up against the other major productivity package for the Mac: Microsoft Office?

Itis an interesting question, but I am more intrigued by another one: How well does it stack up against AppleWorks? Yes, AppleWorks. I explored this topic once before, after the previous version of iWork was released. Here, I return to it again for an updated assessment.

AppleWorks (for those of you unfamiliar with this gem) is an integrated software package, originally called ClarisWorks, that was a spectacularly successful product for Apple back in the 1990s. With the advent of Mac OS X, Apple pretty much abandoned the software (although itis still available from the Apple Store for Education).

Its most recent and likely final upgrade was in 2003. If you run it in Tiger, it works?but it has a clunky feel reminiscent of taking a 1940s car out for a spin on todayis Interstates. Yet I have continued to use it. Why? Because it still does a few things better than any alternative.

For one, I have used AppleWorks for spreadsheets. Yes, I could have used Excel, but I preferred the simplicity of AppleWorks for the mundane tasks I generally needed done. Second, I used its Draw module for creating simple layouts, such as for the landscape redesign of my backyard. My wife even prefers AppleWorks as a basic word processor, although I long ago gave it up for Microsoft Word. The major problem with continuing to use AppleWorks for any task is that its joints get creakier every year and those joints will never be repaired.

Thatis why, each time a new version of iWork comes out, I put it to the AppleWorks test: Is this the version of iWork that will finally let me retire AppleWorks for good?

The answer for iWork i08 is, at last: Yes.

Letis look at Pages first. My biggest objection to previous versions of Pages is that it was too much of a page layout program and not enough of a word processor. It was great if you were trying to create a newsletter. Not so great if you simply wanted to write an article.

Apple finally seems to have realized this and now offers two modes for Pages: Word Processing and Page Layout. In truth, the differences between the two modes are minimal. But they exist. For example, in word processing mode, the default is for typed text to be placed directly onto the document page. In Page Layout, text is entered into a separate text box, that can be moved around the page like any object. The overall effect is to create a more pleasant environment for using Pages as a text-oriented word processor.

An unexpected bonus is that Pages i08is word processor adds the ability to track editing changes. This is a critical feature for professional writing, where multiple people are likely to be editing a document and need to be able to quickly see the changes made by the other(s). Previously, Microsoft Word was just about the only Mac program that provided this feature.

Pages i08 is also an adequate substitute for the Draw module in AppleWorks. To use it this way, open a blank Page Layout document and choose from the Shapes options to place objects on a page. You can then manipulate the objects via the Graphic Inspector and the Arrange menu. Minor improvements make Pages i08 an even better draw program than the previous version. For example, by default, an inserted shape can be freely moved around the page. In the previous Pages version, the default was to have a shape inserted inline with the document text. One continuing significant omission: you canit layout pages horizontally (so as to accommodate objects that are wider than can fit on one page).

Numbers is clearly superior to the spreadsheet module in AppleWorks (and you can easily import your AppleWorks files to Numbers). Itis especially well-suited for "page layout" style spreadsheets, using multiple charts and tables, as opposed to one simple row-and-column sheet. Professionals will still prefer Excel, but casual users will find Numbers less intimidating and easier to use. You canit embed a Numbers spreadsheet in a Pages word processing document, as you could do in AppleWorks. Instead, Pages has its own Tables component that should suffice for most requirements of this type.

As for the rest of iWork, itis easy to summarize. For page layout tasks and slide presentations, iWork always was and continues to be far superior to AppleWorks. AppleWorks does have database and paint modules, still missing in iWork.

These are of minor concern for me, and I suspect for most other users as well. If you want a database, such as for a recipe file or a CD catalog, you are better off getting one of the many excellent and low cost programs specialized for those tasks. For many database tasks, you can probably use Numbers. AppleWorksi Paint module is too primitive to care about losing it.

Bottom line: iWork i08 can handle almost all of the tasks that might otherwise lead you to hang on to AppleWorks. In almost every respect, it handles those tasks either as well or better (often much better) than AppleWorks. This is finally it. If you havenit already done so, the time has come to put AppleWorks in the dust bin.

A word about the new iMacs

The same day that Apple announced iWork i08, it also announced a new iMac line-up. The new iMacs are thinner, faster, and better looking than their predecessors. Aside from a reflective glass screen (which I have never much liked, despite its many advocates), the new machines have a lot to recommend them. As an upgrade from the previous iMacs, however, my overall reaction is to yawn. If you werenit about to purchase a new iMac anyway, there is little in these new machines to change your mind.

While watching the Special Event where Steve Jobs revealed the new iMacs, I had the impression that even Steve was less than excited. Certainly, there was none of the energy that he generated when talking about iPhone in keynotes at Macworld Expo or WWDC. Actually, although I may be misinterpreting body language here, it looked to me as if Steve was never running on all cylinders throughout the entire talk. I started to wonder if he might be ill.

The iMac situation reminds me of a recent visit to a department store, where I happened to pass the aisle displaying pocket calculators. I was surprised to see that Texas Instruments was still selling essentially the same calculators, even using the same model names in some cases, as were available 15 to 20 years ago. One can only assume that either there is no way to improve these calculators or there is no longer any incentive to do so. Either way, the calculator market is stagnant.

The same situation apparently exists now with desktop Macs. Either there are no dramatic improvements or exciting new features possible right now?or Apple is too busy with its iPods and iPhones to spend the time and energy needed to come up with any. I suspect it is some combination of both.