What's in Store for iWork?

Just what did Steve mean by "Building the Successor to AppleWorks"?

by David Lang (Posted: 1/29/05)


[Please Note: As with all Bully Pulpit articles, the views expressed in this opinion piece are completely my own, and are not necessarily representative of CMUG.]

Not a Prophet or the Son of a Prophet

Ever since Steve Jobs returned to Apple, I've stopped paying as much attention to the Mac rumor sites, and I've generally stopped trying to predict what Apple will do next. Jobs has proven to be so mercurial that it's never clear what his next move will be. And he guards Apple's secrets so jealously that would-be Apple prognosticators are left with little to go on. But sometimes, Steve drops a hint so tantalizing that one can hardly help dreaming about what it might mean for the future of the Mac. So while I am neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet (Amos 7:14), allow me to indulge in a little wild speculation about the future of iWork.

Unless a Grain of Wheat Falls to the Ground and Dies...

Jesus said that "unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit" (John 12:24, ESV). Jesus used this parable to illustrate the necessity of His own death on the cross, but the principle also applies to Apple's cycle of new product development. In other words, when it appears that Apple is allowing a product to languish, it's a fairly sure bet that they're about to come out with something new and "insanely great."

Back in 2001, when iMac sales were seriously beginning to lag and everyone was hoping for a new form factor, Apple released a really meager speed-bump to its existing iMac line, and lots of Mac enthusiasts were deeply disappointed. At the time, I wrote an article arguing that such a modest update was the surest sign that a new iMac design would soon be forthcoming. Sure enough, the G4 iMac was released less than six months later.

Ever since Safari and Keynote were released a couple of years ago, the Mac web has been abuzz with speculation that Apple would eventually develop its own suite of office applications and finally break its dependence upon Microsoft Office. As time passed, however, people began to worry that Apple was afraid to challenge Microsoft in the office space. In fact, last year's unfortunate slogan for iLife '04—"it's like Microsoft Office for the rest of your life"—seemed a sure sign that Apple was bending over backward to play nice with Redmond.

But in my mind, there was one clear indicator that Apple had to be working on something: namely, the lack of attention being paid to AppleWorks. Ever since AppleWorks was half-heartedly ported to Carbon, it has been left to languish, with no significant updates other than a few minor bug fixes. Why would Apple let such a key piece of software wither on the vine? The only explanation that made any sense at all was that it had to preparing something far better to replace it.

Unfortunately for HyperCard enthusiasts and Newton loyalists, Apple doesn't always develop insanely great replacements for products it allows to die a slow death, but when we're talking about strategic products like the iMac and consumer-level productivity software, a grain of wheat falling to the ground is a sure sign that Apple will soon produce much new fruit.

Just the Beginning

Sure enough, at this year's MacWorld, Apple debuted iWork, a suite of productivity applications made up of Keynote 2.0 and Pages, a hip new word processing/page layout app. I got to play with Pages a little at MacWorld, and was largely impressed, though I did discover that there is currently no easy way to rearrange and delete pages you've created (for more on this problem, see this recent MacWorld review). Pages' current shortcomings aside, it is clearly a shot across Microsoft's bow, and as Pages matures, I have little doubt that it will begin to cut into sales of Office for Mac.

Jobs, of course, was careful not to describe iWork as competing with Microsoft Office. Rather, he billed it as "the successor to AppleWorks." He's not lying, of course. iWork is the successor to AppleWorks. But it's also sure to become a quite viable alternative to Microsoft Office.

It's also significant to note that Steve did not describe iWork as currently being a replacement for AppleWorks. On the contrary, he said that with iWork Apple is building the successor to AppleWorks. After all, AppleWorks still does things that iWork does not. In addition to a Word Processing and (admittedly paltry) Presentation component, AppleWorks also includes a Drawing component, a Painting component, a speadsheet component, and a database component. Apple therefore still has a fair amount of work to do before it can fully put AppleWorks out to seed.

What new applications will the next iteration of iWork contain? It seems to me that a spreadsheet, database, or some innovative new combination of the two is the next logical choice. Besides Word and PowerPoint, Microsoft Office consists of Entourage for e-mail and Excel for spreadsheets. OS X already comes with the Mail application, so all Apple needs is a twenty-first century spreadsheet app to make iWork a viable consumer alternative for Office. I'm certain that Apple doesn't want to tread on Microsoft's toes too much, so expect iWork to leave the high end of office productivity to Microsoft; but it's a pretty safe bet that Apple will make iWork into a full-fledged Office alternative for consumers and small businesses—two markets where the Mac is currently holding its own if not actually growing.

In addition to treading lightly around Microsoft, Apple needs to be careful that iWork doesn't undercut the market for FileMaker, the database app developed by the Apple-owned subsidiary of the same name. I would suspect that a new Cocoa-based Database app to succeed FileMaker would be debuted before or around the same time that a consumer-oriented database appeared as part of iWork, but it's here that my predictions become really fuzzy.

Ultimately, I have no idea where Apple is going with iWork, but Jobs' "building a successor" refrain is a pretty clear indication that iWork will be significantly expanded in the future. Perhaps we'll have to wait another two years for the next iWork application to appear, but I suspect we'll see something new by the next MacWorld San Francisco. Wherever Apple takes iWork, a few things seem clear. First, expect a more mature iWork to eventually be bundled with Apple's consumer Macs: the iMac, eMac, iBook, and Mac Mini. When that happens, Windows switchers will begin to see that there can be life without Microsoft Word and Office. Second, if Microsoft ever threatens to stop development of Office for the Mac, Apple may finally be in a position to call their bluff.

On a number of fronts, iWork is good for Apple and the Mac. It will be interesting to see what its future holds in store.

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