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The Grave Unhappiness Wrought by the Failure of the iWork Pages Update

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Even as the world careens from crisis to crisis—will Iran get (and use) The Bomb? Will the euro finally fail? Will ObamaCare put the nail in the coffin of the U.S. economy and America’s tradition of self-reliance and individual liberty? No one’s crystal ball is sharp enough to say. But even as the world conjures with these and other pending catastrophes, there are still local tempests to conjure with. In the somewhat rarefied world of word-processing software, the corporate giant Apple has precipitated a category five storm in the teapot inhabited by users of its iWork suite of software: Pages, Numbers, and Keynote, the Word, Excel, and Powerpoint of the Apple eco-system.

Last week, in the course of a big Apple event in San Francisco, The Corporation announced, to considerable fanfare, new versions of iWork. There were smiles everywhere as a couple of Corporate officials took to the stage and demonstrated that, at long last, users would be able to collaborate on the same document simultaneously over the internet, on their Macs and/or their iPads and iPhones, even on PCs. This is a feature that Google has offered for some time, but Apple’s implementation was supposed to be more elegant (if less robust technically). The software had been rewritten from the ground up, they announced, adding many new features. It was a particularly welcome announcement for those who use the software because the last major update to the iWork software was in 2009, eons ago in the chronology of software. Patience was about to be rewarded. A new Apple triumph was about to be born. The new software, which Apple was offering for free, would make serious inroads into the hegemony of Microsoft’s Office suite, which is a de facto world-wide standard.

The celebratory mood lasted for about 15 minutes. Then a few people downloaded and started using the software. Uh oh. In its effort to make iWork compatible with the version that runs on the iPad and iPhone, Apple decided to neuter the desktop version of its software. “Big deal,” you say. “Use Microsoft Office.”  More and more people will do just that, I suspect. But in the meantime, there is high drama at the Apple support site and App store, where the hostile comments about the software vastly outnumber the positive comments. One independent reviewer summed up the verdict: “Pages 5: An unmitigated disaster.”

I’ve been using Pages myself for a couple of years. I’ve never liked Microsoft Office, and I’ve always harbored a particular dislike for Word, which I find bloated and unwieldy. Before using Pages, I wrote using a DOS- and then Windows-based programmer’s editor. It was a bare bones approach, but I liked the simplicity of the software and the control it offered over text manipulation. Together with a DOS-based PostScript layout tool, I was good to go.

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My introduction to Apple was through the iPhone. I had always regarded Apple products as glorified toys—pretty but only semi-functional—but I had to admit that the iPhone made good on its promise of simple yet sophisticated elegance.  Then came an iMac. At first, I ran it with a Windows partition, switching back and forth between OS X, the Apple operating system, and Windows.  Eventually, I scrapped the Windows bit altogether. It was at about this time that I started using Pages as my preferred writing tool. It is not as sophisticated as a dedicated page layout program like Quark or InDesign. But it is pretty capable and far more elegant than Word.

All of which is to say that I was as pleased as anyone when I heard about the new version of Pages.  Step by step over the last few years, I have become an Apple enthusiast. The iMac soon had the company of a Macbook Pro and then an iPad. What did it for me was opening up my first Apple laptop. I’d been through this drill with PC laptops many times and was prepared to spend the better part of an evening getting it to play nice with our home network and printer (Drivers: remember Windows Drivers?). But when I turned on the Apple laptop, it instantly found our home network and printer. I was up an running in a couple of minutes. To adapt the old Apple slogan: It Just Worked.

One of the things I liked about Apple stuff was its design. Hardware and software both seemed very well thought-out. Simple. Elegant. Yet also very capable. The software tended to have a clean, easy-to-use, almost minimalist interface. But scratch the surface and you’d find it could handle all sorts of complex tasks. Like many users of Pages, I was expecting more of the same with this latest release. What we got instead was a crippled version of the software—scores  upon scores of basic features have been removed in order to make it work seamlessly on the iPad and iPhone.

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It is also extraordinarily buggy. For example, because of the new file format, it is not generally possible to email a Pages document as an attachment. Most email servers (Gmail, for example) reject the new format as suspect. Should that have been tested? Many popular add-on pieces of software do not work with the new versions of the iWork suite. It also turns out that the new file format is incompatible with the previous version of iWork (meaning, for example, that if you use the new software to open a document you created with the previous version, you will no longer be able to open it with the previous version). Fortunately, installing the new software on a Mac does not overwrite the previous version, so it is a relatively simple matter to restore the old version—relatively simple.  You still need to uninstall the new version in order to get the system to use the previous version by default. But switching back to the previous version on a mobile device, while possible, is much more complicated. If you make the change on your Mac, though, you more or less have to make the change on your mobile devices because, again, once you open a file with the new system you're stuck. (You have one escape option: using the new software to export the file you’ve opened to the old file format.)

iWork does not enjoy anything like the user base that Office does. But there are tens if not hundreds of thousands of people who use it. Some are casual users. Some are professionals: lawyers, designers, publishers, etc. These are the folks who will be most harmed by the new version of the software. For on top of everything else, the new version of iWork breaks many features of document templates created with the previous version. So let’s say you are working on a book that has images in the headers and footers. Open it with the new version and, bang! the images are stripped out without warning because the new version doesn’t support that feature. It's easy to see how hours of work might be flushed down the drain.

The situation is actually much worse than I’ve made it sound—worse, anyway, in this little hothouse universe. I’ve never seen a shoddier release. The fate of particular pieces of word processing and spreadsheet software may not signify much in the world at large. But among the population of people who use and depend on it, there is grave unhappiness. Apple really messed up on this, and it is interesting if unedifying to ask what it portends about the giant company’s future. So far, the company has said nothing about this little disaster. Many commentators have speculated that they don't much care about it. Their revenue comes more and more from consumer gadgets like the iPad and iPhone. But part of the appeal of those gadgets is that they were supposed to be “magical and revolutionary” as well as elegant—that is, they were capable of doing important work as well as entertaining us. Does “work” still figure into the equation? A few years ago, Apple Computer dropped “Computer” and became “Apple, Inc.” Maybe they need to change their name again: “Apple Entertainment,” perhaps, or maybe just “Apple Sauce.”

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Cross-posted from Roger's Rules