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    Apple ups ante in Microsoft Office suite competition

    by Alan Zisman (c) 2007 First published in Business in Vancouver October 2-8, 2007; issue 936

    High Tech Office column

    A high-tech-office memory from almost exactly a decade ago: Apple Computers was not yet a media darling; instead it was most often being described as “beleaguered.” The assembled Apple faithful see a giant talking head of Microsoft’s Bill Gates telling the stunned crowd that his company would continue development of the Mac version of Microsoft Office and would invest $150 million in non-voting Apple stock.

    In 1997, Apple needed Microsoft’s “blessing.” (And Microsoft needed a viable Apple to demonstrate to the U.S. Justice Department that, yes, there was competition in computer operating systems. Besides, it later sold its Apple stock at a profit.)

    A decade level, Apple is far from beleaguered, with massive sales of iPods, Mac computer sales up 30% over last year, the new iPhone and more. Less attention is being paid to Apple’s August release of software aimed squarely at Microsoft Office.

    The new iWork 08 ($79; $99 for a five-licence family pack) is the second generation of Apple’s office suite software. The previous version included the company’s Keynote presentation software and Pages, a word processor with strong page design features. The new version adds Numbers, a spreadsheet. All applications can open and save in the corresponding Microsoft Office file formats.

    Like Apple’s hardware, these programs are not simply warmed-over copies of PC standards. Each offers a stylish alternative, allowing users to flexibly move text boxes, tables, charts and graphics around a document. The applications share a toolbar with icons featuring drop-down icons and a formatting bar that varies according to what is selected. All applications also share a very slick “instant alpha” feature making it easy to remove the background from images – an effect that formerly would have required adjusting the image in Photoshop.

    This graphical approach may seem foreign to users raised on Microsoft Word or Excel. Instead of a typical spreadsheet grid with rows and columns, Numbers presents users with a blank canvas, ready to be filled with tables, charts, images and text frames as desired. Multi-page workbooks can be created as in Excel, but may not be needed. It’s easy to manage multiple tables of data in a single Numbers page.

    Numbers also makes it easy to set up a spreadsheet so users can choose data from drop-down lists or by dragging a slider. That’s doable in Excel, but only with much more effort. Advanced users may, however, miss all the functions that are available in Excel or that program’s PivotTables. Templates for budgets, return on investment and more are attractive, but don’t offer a wide range of business-oriented pre-fab solutions. And if you rely on Excel macros, Numbers won’t do what you need. But if you’re looking for a way to present numerical data its 3D charts are fun to create and much more attractive than the competition’s.

    The Pages word processor runs in two modes: one for word-processing the other for page layout. The new version adds revision tracking, needed by many business users, which is retained when files are exported to Word. Footnotes, endnotes and tables of contents are supported. Mail merge, however, is crippled, working with data from Apple’s Address Book, but not from spreadsheets – not even iWork’s Numbers.

    Keynote offers a strong set of presentation bells and whistles, including improved animation effects and a set of templates that offer a refreshing change from the overused PowerPoint standards.

    While Microsoft Office versions for Mac and Windows include e-mail and personal information management software (Entourage and Outlook, respectively), iWork ignores these areas because it’s designed to work with Apple’s Mail, iCal and Address Book programs bundled with every Mac. And for many that will be the catch: while iWork is an attractively priced, innovative, graphically sophisticated alternative to Microsoft Office, it’s only available for Mac users.

    A new version of Microsoft Office for Mac is due out this fall; it will be interesting to see how it responds to Apple’s iWork 08 challenge. •

Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan

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