iPad App Review: iWork Ready for Mobile Computing Prime Time?

If the Apple iPad is to have a future in the enterprise -- and iPad-smitten employees will likely insist upon it -- it must be able to perform at least basic business tasks competently. Can it?

Well, Apple's iWork suite of productivity mobile apps, launched at the same time as the hardware, makes a good start, offering word processing, spreadsheet and presentation authoring tools.

Originally a Macintosh application, iWork was first adapted for the iPhone, and then for the iPad. The iPad version sells for $9.99 per app at Apple's iPad App Store and includes Pages (word processing), Numbers (spreadsheet) and Keynote (presentations).

Are the iWork iPad apps good and capable enough to satisfy the needs of enterprise users? It depends on the user.

Pages won't satisfy a Microsoft Office Word power user, but it's probably fine for a mobile office worker who only needs to occasionally write simple documents. And Keynote is good enough for a road warrior who needs to quickly cobble together a PowerPoint-style slide show on the fly.

iWork for iPad: Pros and Cons of the Mobile App, Quirks of iPad Mobile Computing

A bigger problem than the capabilities of the software may be the iPad's form factor and interface. They're not really designed for productive work. There are also some peculiarities of operating system architecture that complicate moving files back and forth between iPad and more conventional systems.

It is possible to connect a Bluetooth wireless keyboard. I tested the iWork apps using the Microsoft Bluetooth Mobile Keyboard 6000 ($90). Apple's iPad Keyboard Dock ($70), which provides an integrated charging dock that holds the iPad upright and a Mac-style keyboard, may be a better bet, but the Microsoft product worked fine and is a surprisingly good keyboard for its size (13.9 x 6.58 x 0.63 in., 14.6 oz.)

As with other Apple products, the iPad does have some keyboarding idiosyncrasies. It does not differentiate between Delete and Backspace, for example. If you hit the Delete key on a PC-style keyboard, the software backspaces rather than deleting the character ahead of the cursor. If you hit Backspace, it does the same. This is annoying for PC users, but not a killer flaw.

A more serious shortcoming is that it's not possible, yet, to connect a mouse to the iPad. Rather than groping to the side of the keyboard for the mouse, you have to lean forward and tap the screen to position the cursor or select text. And the iPad's touch interface is neither as accurate nor as easy to use as a mouse.

Given that there are third-party software solutions available for adding a Bluetooth mouse to an iPhone, I assume it's only a matter of time before it's also possible with the iPad.

In the meantime, users will have to learn a new mouse-less mode of working, using touch or keyboard shortcuts. It's not impossible. Your correspondent managed to write most of this article on the iPad using Pages, learning as I worked.

At an even simpler level, unless you buy the iPad Keyboard Dock, there is the problem of how to hold the iPad upright so you can see it while you type - an iPad is meant to be held in your hands. I solved the problem by borrowing a wire plate stand from the kitchen. They cost less than $5, are adjustable, fold flat and weigh only a few ounces.

The other slight snag is that the iPad does not store user data in a central repository. It stores files with the app. The programs open to an iTunes-style visual library of existing files associated with the app from which you choose the document you want to open.

The iWork apps can read files created in Microsoft Office and export to PDF and Office formats. And third-party add-on products such as DropBox, an online storage service that lets you synchronize multiple computers with a single folder in the cloud, do make it fairly easy to transfer files from a PC (or Mac or server) to the iPad.

There is an iPad-specific app for DropBox. It automatically and very quickly synchs with your DropBox folder when you log in to your account. When you tap on an Office document in the DropBox iPad app, an option appears to open it in the appropriate iWork app (if it's installed).

The difficulty is getting files back to a PC or server after editing or creating them on the iPad. You have to e-mail them as attachments to yourself - not very elegant. Another alternative is to use Apple's online storage service, iShare. What of the actual software functionality?

The feature sets are decidedly on the 'lite' side. Pages, for example, is not as feature-rich as the WordPad application that ships free with recent versions of Microsoft Windows. But the iWork apps are elegantly simple, easy to learn and generally pleasing to use.

One slightly annoying interface design feature: when you rotate the iPad to landscape orientation -- which you may want to do so that text appears larger or spreadsheets fit across the screen -- the menus and toolbars disappear, leaving only the data and onscreen keyboard (if you haven't connected a physical keyboard).

This is deliberate, but it does pose problems. I was not able to discover a keyboard shortcut for applying formatting to selected text, for example. You can select text using touch or keyboard shortcuts, but the only way to bold or italicize it is to turn the screen back to portrait orientation to reveal the toolbar, and then touch the Italics or Bold icon, or the 'i' icon which launches a pop-up text styles and formatting menu.

Selecting content in a document using the touch interface does take a little getting used to too. You double-tap a word or graphic or cell, then to expand a selection, tap and drag the corners of its marquee. This may seem awkward to Windows/mouse adepts, especially when editing text.

Pages offers word processing basics such as font selection, text and paragraph formatting, margin and page size adjustments. You can also apply preset document styles to selected sections of a document. You can add columns. You can even add headers and footers outside the main document area. Pages makes it easy to add graphics -- including charts (from Numbers) and tables -- and automatically wraps text around them. It has a spell checker. And you can choose from a handful of attractive templates, such as letters, resumes and so on, when starting a new document.

But the font selection, while adequate, is finite and there is no way of adding more fonts. Selecting a new font or increasing size is not quite as easy as it is using shortcuts in Word. You cannot adjust the way Pages wraps text around images. You cannot select which dictionary you want to use -- it's American English or nothing.

And features completely missing -- such as the ability to turn document text into hyperlinks or use macros or kern text - are too numerous to list. This is not an app for power users, but then it doesn't pretend to be.

Keynote, the presentation app, makes it easy to add new slides and order and manage slides and slide sets, and add text boxes, graphics and movies to them. You can then edit content and change styles using similar menus and touch gestures as the other iWork apps.

Keynote lets you add fancy transitions between slides and, impressively, animate object so they move on or off the slide on cue. The app makes good use of the touch interface too -- to indicate direction of movement when animating an object, for example, you tap and drag it.

To play presentations on a bigger screen, you do need the iPad VGA accessory ($30), a cable that plugs into the iPad's single port.

When you're connected to another playback device, you can simulate the effect of using a laser light pen by tapping on an object on the iPad screen to highlight it on the big screen. And the interface makes controlling presentations simple and intuitive - you swipe across the screen to advance to the next slide, for example.

But for creating presentations, Keynote for iPad interface is definitely not as easy to use as a mouse- and keyboard-driven program such as PowerPoint. The number of variables -- slide transition effects, for example, fonts -- is also small. And as with Pages, many advanced features are missing altogether.

Numbers delivers a similar range of basic to fairly advanced features. You can create multi-sheet spreadsheet documents, adjust the number of columns and rows, insert mathematical formulas into cells and generate charts from sheet data.

The selection of formulas available is small compared to an Excel. And as with the other iWork apps, many advanced features, macros, fields and such, are entirely missing.

Can you perform basic business tasks with the iPad and iWork? Sure, if your requirements are fairly simple. But even with iWork and an add-on keyboard, don't start thinking the iPad can replace a laptop.

TAGS:

iPad, Apple, iPad app, mobile app, mobile computing

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