It Doesn’t Matter if iWork is Inferior to MS Office: iWork Still Wins

| Editorial

Microsoft's Office suite is better and more capable than Apple's iWork productivity suite. There's no doubt about that. The interesting thing, however, is that it won't matter. Even though Microsoft would like to convince us otherwise, the better product will lose.



When I think about what makes an iPad the quintessential modern tablet, I think about its basic design elements. An iPad is:

  • Thin.
  • Light.
  • Clean in design. Not cluttered with ports, say USB, that imply usage patterns that can be achieved in other ways. For example, iCloud.
  • Usable with only touch and gestures. It can be used with a stylus, but a stylus isn't necessary.
  • Usable with a Bluetooth keyboard, but a physical keyboard isn't necessary.
  • Always available with a touch. Doesn't need to be turned on and off or booted up very often.
  • A wireless only device; no Ethernet cables.
  • Designed to use apps don't depend on or need a highly visible file system. Apps generally don't use the data from other apps.
  • Focused on lightweight apps, not historically complex apps found on the desktop Mac or PC.

It's that last item that fits into my thinking about the future of the iPad and tablets in general. The meme of the tablet is simplicity. Therefore, there is a fundamental conflict between complex productivity apps and the design principles of a tablet.

Microsoft has sought to strategically fight, in a losing battle I believe, the fundamental design concepts of the modern tablet listed above. Microsoft's strategy has been to preserve Windows and Office as cash cows, and therefore, it designed the Surface to be a tablet that runs that software as well as possible.

In order to justify that Hail Mary strategy, Microsoft points out that MS Office is head and shoulders above the lightweight, inferior productivity suite from Apple, iWork. And it is!

The weakness in that strategy, however, is that a productivity suite on a modern tablet is designed to be lightweight.

The Weight of History

History, I believe, will show that MS Office is tied to a dying platform. Tablet sales will surpass PC sales in a few years, and there is no reversing this trend. The sales curves will continue to diverge. Other factors have and will continue to come into play.

  • PCs will be the rare case of the truck, in Steve Jobs's analogy, as opposed to the mass market car.
  • The idea of free OS and productivity software is what it means to own an iPad, to take a line from Tim Cook.
  • By focusing on consumer electronics as its bread and butter instead of boutique UNIX workstations, Apple taps into buyers who have their own purchase authority. They don't need approval from a business supervisor.
  • The only people who will be buying MS Office will be businesses who are spending someone else's money.
  • Businesses are always looking to cut costs or pass the cost on to the employees: Home offices, home Internet, BYOD, and so on.

I should point out that when you buy a Microsoft Surface 2, based on ARM, the follow-on to the Surface RT, you get a free version of MS Office (Office 2013 RT) that now includes Outlook, but the productivity apps are less capable than the full MS Office. The Surface RT/2 is a D.O.A. product. If you buy a Surface Pro 2 which starts a $900, you'll pay extra for the full X86 version of MS Office Home and Business, about $220.

Better But Not More Pervasive

In time, quantity will overcome quality. Sure, there will be a few businesses who depend on Excel and Word for special kinds of work. Even our own Dave Hamilton told me this morning that when he needs to set up even a simple spreadsheet, it's much easier to do it in Excel on a Mac than Numbers on an iPad.

It doesn't matter. Non-expert users by the hundreds of millions will find a way to get their works done with their favorite tablet as PCs become more and more rare. So the argument that you can't get any real work done on an iPad and iWork wins now but fails over the long run.

I should also note that the fact that Apple has dumbed down the Mac versions of iWork doesn't mean Apple is giving up the battle. I've written software my entire technical career, and I can attest to the fact that if you're going to carry two versions of an app forward in time, together, in sync, for different platforms, they must first have a common code base. Only after code commonality is achieved can features be reliably added to both platforms. It's a step back in order to take two steps forward.

In time, tablets will become so pervasive that the sense of the whole situation will be that, sure, MS Office is a formidable product, head and shoulders above iWork. But it's tied to a dying platform, and Microsoft has given themselves no practical, technical path forward. And so MS Office will settle into being a very niche, low volume product while the tablet era explodes into all pervasive use. And on those iPads will be a steadily improving, but lightweight and free productivity apps that are good enough and getting better.

That will drive decisions about standards, publishing, file exchange and other tablet era usage patterns in business and government. That's exactly what happend to the ostracized Mac in the 90s, but in reverse.

As Don Meredith used to say on Monday Night Football at the end of the game when it was certain one team would lose: "Turn out the lights, the party's over."


iPad Air image via Apple.

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John, I believe you are giving MS the jitters b telling them they will be relegated to the niche corner.

One more thing who knows if Apple keep on improving iWork, Number may be as good as Excel.

Let’s see in a year’s time.

More jitters for MS.



Very interesting insights. As someone who uses, and has used, a Mac in business and industry since OS 9, I can attest that up until now (and still now) the ability to seamlessly use Windows Office and Office: Mac has been key to my being able to use Macs in the enterprise. Whereas before I was a graphic/then-website designer (OK, I get to use a Mac there by default), now I’m in a freakin’ IT department (Windows territory), and bless my boss, he still fitted me up with an iMac and all the software I requested, including, of course, Office: Mac.

Wow…do I see that going away as you predict, John? Tough call. Office is about as heavily entrenched a product as you’re going to find in business. But VHS famously won over Betamax, and more to the point, Windows won out over Mac. Time will tell.

I will just never understand why MS kept making Office: Mac after that five-year agreement expired. Killing Office:Mac would have killed Apple, IMHO. It certainly would have killed my ability to use it in my professional career, where Office compatibility was key. Not that I’m complaining…..

Lee Dronick

Interesting, when I read the headline I thought that story was about the mac versions of iWork. I have Office installed, but I rarely use it, most of the time I use Pages and Numbers. Now that being said, I also have, and use, Pages on my iPad and iPhone. I am fixing to get ready to instal Numbers on my iOS devices. I like the way iWork can synch using iCloud.


One possible solution for MS would be to have deals with manufacturers to bundle Office in machines they sell in order to “hardware-subsidize” Office and have a better money streams from their partners.

HP Thingamajig student $350
(low specs + Windows X.X + Office trial)
HP Thingamajig personal $450
(slightly-less-sucky specs + Windows X.X + Office personal 2 yrs)
HP Thingamajig pro $700
(average specs + Windows X.X Pro + Office Pro 2 yrs)
HP Thingamajig premium $900
(better specs + Windows X.X Pro + Office Pro 2 yrs)

In each scenarios MS would tier the revenus coming in (plateauing at “PRO” level). Same could go on for Windows tablets.

Not that I’m actually rooting for MS to succeed or anything… I just had a thought about how MS could mixup their game.


I’m much more certain that Office is dying than I am that iWork will become a new standard. With a new paradigm of software coming with the hardware, as long as software interoperates, especially in the workplace, then it seems like people will find their preferred platforms to do it on.

This was always the way computers should have worked and it’s largely IBM, then Microsoft’s fault that it didn’t. But no business is going to let its data and archives be tied to file formats anymore. I thank god every day I translated some of my old work product from WordPerfect when I did!

John Dingler, artist

MS is now careening, yes, into adopting units of what I can only describe as “super Apples” in how the units are forward looking. While they are part of MS, they seem to be separate from main MS management in order, I guess, to avoid the infected form of management that MS has internally.

I liken these small startup bumps in the MS body as desperate as the creation of the failed Windows RT and its invisible tablet.


I think Microsoft’s only realistic way forward is if they develop a lighter “Office Mobile” version; perhaps for a low subscription cost or priced significantly cheaper than full Office. And they’re going to need to be smart about it to succeed; it’ll have to be intuitive for a touch interface and be smartly trimmed for the platform, rather than the “everything-to-everyone” bloatware route they usually go.

I see what’s going on at present though; I get the impression that the old guards at MS are scared that any attempt to deliver a less costly version of their mature software cash cow will eat into profits.


This piece reminds me of things I read a long time ago when Word Perfect was the best word processor. Word perfect continued to be the best word processor long after it was relegated to a niche product after being the dominant WP of the early 90’s.

Will this happen to MS Word/Office?

Perhaps. Paradigm shifts are powerful things and it seems that the desktop paradigm is shifting from being the dominant way we compute. New ways of getting the work done will probably become more and more prevalent. I don’t see Office really making that leap anymore than VisiCalc made the leap or any of the other dominant Software from any era was able to make any leap.

Things just change and new companies come up to take advantage of the future vision better than those who have dominated before.


I agree it is pointless to keep two parallel code-bases moving forward.
However, the way to structure this is to separate UX from Engine. The UX layer of an iPad app probably will share little with that of a Mac app, but that does not mean that the underlying code that represents the data needs to be different. Apple goofed somewhere along the way. Probably the original iWork apps were not properly layered making it very difficult to port to iOS.  Now users are paying the price. No need to make excuses for Apple.

That being said, I doubt tablets are ever going to become mainstream for content creation. Typing on them is not fun and fingers are less precise than mice. Also, building work-flows is difficult if you don’t have access to a file system and can’t see more than one app at a time. 



@graxspoo. Re: typing. You and I say that, but my 16 yr old can type almost 100wpm on her iPad mini, using it’s onscreen keyboard. Young people quickly pick up things we struggle with. In other words, I wouldn’t bet against the tablet/iPad taking over for content creation.


So, one day quantity will destroy quality and instead of learning to use powerfull tools to accomplish our jobs, we’ll try to rigmarole a solution on a dumbed down tool cause… I don’t really know why actually.

I’m all for slimming down Office and getting it to be more user friendly, but being user friendly does not equal being without fexibility or functions because poor anut May cannot uderstand a UI with more than 3 buttons!!



It looks cool, will be on my gadget buy list for sure


oops, wrong article


@graxspoo: Re: Apple’s goof.

Apple and Next before it have programmed using a MVC paradigm for over 20 years. The model is the data and is completely portable. So, they do understand how to properly separate data from interface. In fact, this is demonstrable in how a single app can have two interfaces, one for iPhone and one for iPad, just as on the Mac with a classic windowed mode and a newer full screen mode.

That’s not the issue, the issue has more to do with being able to bring specific point-and-click interface interactions to a touch screen device. This was the original design issue with bringing Copy and Paste to iOS.

Apple had to strip out specific features of iWork to make the software on both platforms compatible now, and then figure out how to get those features back in that makes for each platform’s methods of interaction.

To further confound all of this, they’re also trying to build a feature parity version that runs in iCloud


@JonGl “I cn hz chzbrgrz” counts for 4 words, right? Seriously, touch typing is an important skill. You can’t type on a touch-screen without looking at your fingers, so you can’t concentrate on your words. So, yes, kids are adaptable, but they also pick up bad habits just as easily as they pick up good ones.

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

John, I think the point you miss is that Office will win in the future when everyone has a tall display and room for multiple toolbars.


It’s interesting that MS is charging full freight for Office on Surface Pro, rather than include it. Ouch. And that’s on top of a high starting price. Extra ouch.



Prior to the five year deal, Microsoft was making over 200 million dollars a year selling Office to Mac users (I used to have an article that supported that statistic, but lost it). Small change to Microsoft, but still no laughing matter. I would have to guess the number is even greater now. That probably has something to do with why Microsoft did not kill Office. It was willing to withhold releasing a new version of Office to Apple to get something from Apple, but after it reached a broad agreement, it only made sense to keep developing the product.

I also think Microsoft’s dominance with Office software has been somewhat muted at least in regards to Word with the Macs ability to easily print to PDF. Most documents I write regardless of format get sent to somebody else as a PDF.

Scott Meller

So is anyone here not an iPhanBoy? I mean seriously, I work in the enterprise world, and there is not one company that would be sold on this shim sham product..Why hasn’t Oracle made the great leap with OpenOffice? (Which is far far more stable product then iWorks & had gDocs integration from a desktop client for ages now) ,or why is Google being tepid with QuickOffice? Because the MS Office applications are fathoms ahead of you already, and Sharepoint applications are almost standard for enterprise. See the typical Apple jockey only looks from the Business to Regular Consumer perspective not Business to Business. If you do go forward and judge the B to C..or small business..I agree (oh my god the first not so one sided opinion!) that iWorks will do what is needed to deliver basic results, but move the bar up to enterprise content management..and well..not so savvy. The other absurdity is this whole cloud based yaddah yaddah..Have you even touched Office 365? I mean I feel like I am on Conservative Republican website with a moderate point of view.  I just do not understand the blinders that people who are sold on this brand can be.. Windows may loose a slow foot hold of the regular consumer, but a niche? Really, are medium to large businesses a niche? I also find the hilarity of paying full price for MS Office so detrimental to its use..When my company called Apple for a discounted enterprise plan to distribute iPads to our sales force..They laid the hammer at full price for each iPad, which coupling another vendor to have the track for enterprise app development has been nothing but an endless pit for start up costs..I cannot even formulate structure sentences for this article, and the resposnses..When i go to Starbucks or the Coffee Beanery to pick up a cup of coffee I am going to assume one of you iPhanBoys are there typing up your memoirs, and needs swift kick in the head..It is amazing what a dedicated consumer will think up when tied to one brand..The real problem is no one widens their gaze, and actually stops to research the most optimal way they can complete tasks..What a waste..

John Martellaro

Mr. Meller:  You are right. Microsoft Office is superior to iWork.  Head and shoulders above.  It’s the better tool for the enterprise. That’s what I said.

It doesn’t matter.

iWork still wins.

As for becoming a niche product, anything that doesn’t change, grow and adapt to new platforms dies.  Every developer believes that their app will live forever. I’m thinking of WordStar, Word Perfect and Lotus 1-2-3.

Clair Saint John

hmmmm, I gotta comment on this. 
I completely disagree, iWork does not win.    This product feels more like a project than the apple tv!    How is it possible that a company like Apple makes this product so ridiculously hard to upgrade.  Delete the old installation?!!???  God, it reminds me of upgrading Adobe Flash. . . seriously!  And how many times have all of you lost access to the templates, and had to reinstall the entire program.  It sucks, seriously.    I don’t care if it does run on the iPad, bla bla.  It is so unusable, crash prone, weak.  I hate it.  completely.  I have a copy of office 2010, which is infinitely more stable than iWork, and it actually can do things, like page layout, ect.    iWork is like apple works, only I think apple works was more powerful.  wink)  Just my two cents.

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