iWork '09 vs. Office 2008 vs. Google Docs

Wednesday Feb 4th 2009 by Ryan Faas

We compare the features and functionality of these three office suites to help you decide which one works best for your needs.

The latest version of Apple’s iWork suite was unveiled at last month’s MacWorld Expo. Featuring applications for word processing (Pages), presentations (Keynote), and spreadsheets (Numbers), iWork is a lower cost ($79) alternative to Microsoft’s Office 2008 for Mac (which ships in various versions ranging from ($149 to $499). iWork ’09 also features an online collaborative component known as iWork.com that is Apple’s first foray against cloud-based collaborative office suites like the popular Google Docs.

Clearly, all three can be very good solutions for many users and offer a similar set of basic features. However, they offer striking differences when it comes to functionality, interface, and the situations they’re best suited for. Understanding your needs as a user is probably the biggest key to picking the best solution.

Word Processing vs. Layout

Of all the Office applications, Word is probably the most commonly and broadly used, making it a good place to begin a comparison. Word, iWork’s Pages, and Google Docs all solidly offer the basic features of a word processor (text editing, basic formatting, spell/grammar checking). For the most common of writing and editing tasks, all three choices are effective.

Where feature sets tend to be different is when it comes to more advanced formatting and layout. Google Docs offers very limited formatting options as a whole: essentially just a handful of fonts, limited text justification and list options, basic color choices, and the typical bold/italics/underline options. Both Word and Pages allow you to take advantages of any fonts on your Mac, create complex tables and columns, list formats, outline modes, and other styling options – giving them a major leg up if you want to customize your documents in any real way.

When it comes to layout (and to a lesser extent styling), Pages has historically had a big leg up on Word. Pages has always combined word processing with layout functions more typically found in desktop publishing software. Features like flowing text between different sections of a page or document and advanced image manipulation (like layering and masking images, floating text and visual elements around each other, and visual effects like drop shadows and reflections) have not traditionally been easily available to Word users.

In Word 2008, Microsoft did introduce a publishing layout mode (as well as a new Notebook layout view) that offers many of these features. However, documents must be created in that mode to take full advantage of those features. While Apple does make a distinction in its Pages templates between word processing and layout projects, Pages ’09 allows users to simply drag and drop media elements or create text boxes in any project – meaning there is no real separation between the two functions. Apple also provides a wider range of layout templates that are somewhat more polished looking than those offered in Word.

Setting aside layout features, the two applications are largely similar in functionality. Both offer outline modes, track changes and commenting features, a wide range of test styling options, and the ability to add tables, charts, and columns with relative ease. Pages now offers support for mail merges from Numbers spreadsheets and Mac OS X’s Address Book, correcting a major deficiency for many users. One area that Pages does excel at is integrating with Apple’s iLife media browser, which can make it somewhat easier to use photos (as well as theoretically music and video). For users that rely on Apple’s solutions for storing contacts and media, these can be big pluses for Pages.

In many ways, the choice between the two really comes down to a matter of user interface preference. Both can get the jobs done that most users want to accomplish. While Pages may be easier for new users and people looking to work easily and quickly with media and layout capabilities, it will also feel a bit alien (at least at first) to many long-time Office users who are used to Word’s interface.

What’s the Focus of Your Spreadsheets?

The first time I used Numbers in iWork ’08, I remember being absolutely floored because it was the first time I ever felt excited about anything having to do with spreadsheets.

A huge part of that feeling was because Numbers approaches spreadsheets very differently than Excel does. Numbers includes the requisite grid of rows and columns, but that familiar grid isn’t the focus of an entire document.

Numbers approaches information more like a document that happens to contain spreadsheet data, relying on sheets that can be laid out in many of the same ways as a Pages document. Tables (the traditional spreadsheet grid) are placed on one or more sheets in a document along with supporting text, images and other media, and charts that are based on the contents of the data in one or more tables. The result is a tool that focuses less on the spreadsheet itself and more on helping to visually organize and digest the information that can be gleaned from the data in the spreadsheet.

This is a great approach for novice spreadsheet users and those people who tend to avoid Excel because the application seems too complex or tedious as a way of interacting with information. Numbers opens the door for the average consumer, small business user, or young student to find ways to work with spreadsheets that they might otherwise avoid or not even thing about. And Apple provides a number of excellent templates for projects – ranging from planning a dinner party to tracking an infant’s health checkups – to get anyone started.

While Numbers focuses on being easy to use, it also provides fairly extensive and intuitive function and formula support. Numbers ’09 includes 250 functions, including many that are commonly used in Excel. Likewise it supports importing and exporting files in Excel formats, though files that have extensive use of Numbers formatting can be a bit challenging to reformat for easing viewing in Excel (even though all data including non-table data is included).

The spreadsheet feature in Google Docs definitely has a much more Excel-like feel to it. The interface is actually very similar to Excel. It supports a fairly broad range of functions and formulas (including some Google-specific ones). One major area where Google differentiates its solution is in its ability to integrate with other Google and web-based tools like gadgets and web-based data entry forms. While these may not be applicable to the majority of users, they do offer unique data entry and output capabilities.

If long-time Word users may feel out of place in Pages, hard core Excel users are definitely going to have some similar opinions about Numbers. With such a different approach, even with similar features, Numbers is going to require more than a little retraining. It also does not perfectly match the feature set of Excel. Two notable exceptions are support for macros (which are essentially stripped from imported documents) and pivot tables (though Numbers does perform feats similar to pivot tables with the new tables categories feature).

Overall, the Excel vs. Numbers question comes down to the question of what features are important to you in a spreadsheet tool and how much of an Excel jockey are you. If you want a functional tool with a visual approach or are a relative spreadsheet novice, Numbers is a great solution. If you’re an experienced Excel user and are more data-oriented, you may find Numbers doesn’t really feel like a good fit or doesn’t do everything you need it to do.

Presentation Animation

PowerPoint and iWork’s Keynote both offer a range of features for developing presentations (as does Google Docs but with such limited support for slide and theme templates and formatting that it really isn’t anywhere near the capability of either PowerPoint or Keynote).

Keynote, however, offers a much broader range of animations and special effects that can be applied to both images and texts. Animated transitions between slides as well as for text and images within a single slide run the gamut from the generic dissolve through 3D visual animations that look more like Hollywood movie effects than transitions in an office suite. The new Magic Move feature enables an amazing level of complex animation of elements from one slide to another, with almost no planning or complex mapping of the effect.

If you’re looking to create presentations with a lot of visual interest, Keynote is a hands down winner. It’s also probably the easiest of the three iWork apps for long-time Office users to adapt to. The basic interface is largely similar to PowerPoint and offers the same features for creating slides, working with templates, editing and viewing presenter notes, and so forth.

Keynote also offers a range of export features including the ability to export to PowerPoint, QuickTime movie, direct upload to YouTube, and export to Apple’s Garage Band for packaging as a podcast. A final great new addition to Keynote ’09 is an iPhone/iPod Touch app that can control a presentation and display both slides and presenter notes on the device.

This allows presenters to present with all the resources that they would have on the Mac and run the presentation regardless of their location, provided they can connect to a WiFi network and thus the Mac in question.

Built-in Templates

Both Office and iWork come with a range of templates and themes for various projects. Those included with iWork tend to cover a broader range, however, and they also tend to have a more professional look to them. By contrast the Office templates tend to look, well, like templates or clip art. Both products also offer the ability to create your own templates or purchase additional third-party ones.

iWork’s templates also function almost as demo projects – each tends to provide sample art, photos, text, and even formulas and charts. This can be viewed as both a pro or con depending on your point of view.

They do provide a lot of starting points for projects and can help you learn how to make use of each application in ways you might not consider. But it also means that to customize many of the templates, you’ll need to replace a lot of existing sample or place-holder elements with your own images and text. Thus, it can help to create your own templates based on the original Apple templates.

What Do You Need in Collaboration?

When it comes to office suites, collaboration can mean different things. iWork, Office, and Google Docs all offer the ability for multiple users to work on a single document with features for adding comments to specific text or other data as well as tracking changes made by each user.

In the case of iWork, both track changes and comments will interoperate very well with the same features in Office. By contrast Google Docs’ track changes and version history features are not compatible with either Office or iWork.

At this point, this is the limit to major collaborative options in Office. Although functional, these features require that a document either be saved in a shared file space (such as a file server) or moved from one computer to another (via email, external disk, or Internet-based storage) in order for another user to view and edit the file. If the second user makes changes, the updated version must then be returned to the original user in order for him or her to view the changes or comments and make additional edits.

Google Docs, on the other hand, is an online tool. This means that you can share a document with any other user. That user can simply view the document online, make changes or comments, and save the updated document. In order to view their additions, all you need to do is access Google Docs through your account on any computer (the iPhone/iPod Touch is supported but currently in a read-only fashion). Google will also maintain a version history for each document, allowing you to view or retrieve a previous version with little effort.

Sitting in the middle of these two extremes is iWork.com, a new web-based feature that Apple introduced in beta along with iWork ’09. iWork.com allows you to publish any iWork document to a shared Internet storage space using an Apple ID (such as the account you use for iTunes Store purchases). When publishing, you can email invitations to other users to access the document using a web browser.

iWork.com displays full formatting of any document through today’s common web browsers. When users access a document, they can see who else is accessing it as well as add comments directly to portions of the documents or general notes about the document as a whole, which all other users can see. If you allow, users can download the document in iWork, Office, or PDF formats.

iWork.com is a great first step for Apple in terms of web- or cloud-based collaboration. It offers complete online viewing and commenting as well as complete formatting (rather than the limited formatting available in Google Docs).

The problem is that it doesn’t allow online editing. Users (including the owner) cannot make changes to a published document. They can download the document, make changes, and re-publish it, but each time a document is re-published it is treated as a separate document. This presents a massive version control issue as there is no easy way to track different revisions of a single document across user accounts. The problem extends not just to edits, but to comments and notes added to each varying revision.

So, it’s a tough call for which solution is the best collaborative tool. Google get’s high marks for online editing, but at the expense of extensive features available in the other suites and at the requirement that collaborative features are largely limited to Google Docs.

iWork.com works great for sharing documents and receiving feedback and notes, but falls short on actually allowing multiple users to easily work on a single document.

iWork and Office both get high marks for offline editing and collaboration, but require a bit of work or some form or shared space for actually sharing document files.

Overall: Apple iWork vs. Microsoft Office vs. Google Docs

In the overall scheme of things, the choice between iWork, Office, and Google Docs comes down to what you need and are comfortable using. iWork provides a host of innovative features and is great for consumers, small businesses, and users not satisfied with the Office interface or its lack of media integration. Its ability to interoperate with Office makes it a perfectly functional alternative even if you need to collaborate with Office users. Anyone even remotely curious should check out the free trial version.

Users familiar with Office and comfortable with its feature set and interface will probably be most comfortable sticking with it. This is particularly true for users that spend a large amount of time in Excel. However, with its relatively low price tag, iWork can make a good complement to Office even if you’re not looking to replace Office completely (like if you want to just replace PowerPoint with Keynote).

Google Docs is ironically the lowest cost (free) option and the one that can easily be accessed from any Mac or PC. However, it is also the most constrained as far as features, formatting options, and interface. While a useful complement to either iWork or Office, it’s hard to envision Google Docs as a complete solution for many users.

Adapted from ITManagement.earthweb.com.

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