Friday, October 13, 2006

Will Apple take on Excel, or settle for sexiest spreadsheet?

As PC Magazine reports, Apple is rumored to include a brand-new, full-blown spreadsheet application in the next release of its iWork suite. If the past is any indication, iWork's next version will be called iWork '07, and should be released next January.

According to PC Mag's article (written by Think Secret staff), the new component, codenamed Lasso, will try to compete with Excel without being too competitive, just like Pages fails to pose direct competition to Word.

That approach, which seemingly runs counter to Apple's recent Mac-PC advertising campaign, might stem from the company's respect for Microsoft's Macintosh Business Unit, whose continued commitment to bring Microsoft Office to the platform has helped make Macs more competitive in some environments.

Can't argue with that. Apple can't afford to lose Microsoft Office for the Mac, whatever a horrible beast that suite currently is on any platform. With Mac versions of Microsoft applications dropping like flies (Internet Explorer, Windows Media Player), Apple needs to be careful in posing competition to Microsoft's titles... At least, for now.

Perhaps one day, when Apple's top secret "Office Killer" inside iWork version (such a thing must exist, right?) is mature enough to be released and promoted as a capable replacement for Microsoft Office, Apple will launch an all-out attack against the Redmond productivity suite, even risking Microsoft's pulling out of the Mac market altogether. But until then, Apple needs to be really careful not to outdo Microsoft too much here. Must be a bitch of a feeling.

I for one wonder when we, Mac users (or actually the users of any computing platform) are getting a decent word processor that will, for example, get structured documents right.

Whenever I've attempted to use several levels of headlines in Microsoft Word, its unpredictable, counterintuitive, and sometimes downright buggy behavior has driven me nuts. I would usually quit trying and continue in Pages instead, even though Apple's word processor has, to my disappointment, turned out to be much more of a presentation tool than anything else, lacking some basic word processing functionality.

That, however, might change somewhat according to PC Mag. Even though Apple's walking on a thin line between complementing and competing with Microsoft Office, the upcoming Pages 3 is rumored to include a dedicated word processing mode:
The next upgrade to Apple's desktop publishing software, Pages 3, is set to receive a number of improvements poised to make the application behave more like a normal word processor. At present, Pages features a virtually identical interface for both standard document creation and more advanced publishing, but Version 3 will divide these two capabilities into separate Word Processing and Layout modes.
So Pages will move a bit closer to Word (or rather, let's hope it'll move closer to what Word should be), while Lasso will get Apple's foot in the doorway of spreadsheet aficionados. We can probably expect attractive presentation of data, as well as perhaps innovative and intuitive data entry solutions as Lasso's main selling points, while on the downside, the app's scope should be vastly limited in comparison to Excel (so that Microsoft feels warm and cozy and safe).

But in any case: iWork watch is on. It's unbelievable how much the world has fallen captive to the Microsoft Office suite. Shocking as it may sound, I think both Word and Excel are usability disasters, and the world would be a much better place if these apps did not have a monopoly. Most computer users in the world have resigned to the notion that a word processing document must be a Word document. Some less savvy computer users even wrap Word documents around images and ZIP files before e-mailing them, thinking that any document should be a Word document! Word is trying to be everything for everyone, and for a lot of people, it is everything. The poor devils. And while Word can do a lot, there's also a lot it does horribly badly, and frankly, just finding your way around that bloated beast can be a daunting experience.

It would be much nicer to have open document standards instead, and competing tools working with them. Hopefully, Microsoft's migration to open, XML-based document formats will help make that possible. And hopefully, one day we will see some real competition from Apple as well. Apple can do multimedia software and system software arguably better than anyone else. Office software should be somewhere inbetween, so Apple could excel there as well (no pun intended).

And by the way, I don't know how much of the user base realizes that the next version of Mac Office will do away with VB support. Microsoft Mac Business Unit development lead Erik Schwiebert explains very nicely how that decision was reached, and it ain't pretty. I'll give you the link to his blog, but be warned: the explanation will have you bang your head against a wall in frustration. Apparently VB support on the Mac was a lifesize model of the Eiffel tower built of matches, and it would all need to be dragged through the eye of a needle in order to be ported to Intel-based Macs. Microsoft says, "no can do." Not enough people. Yeah, right, you may actually read my comments on Erik's blog, so enough of that here.

What could be more ironic than having Apple come up with a way to implement VB in iWork? If Steve Jobs reads this, I think he will do it just so he can annoy Bill Gates. Just remember where you read it first.

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