Analysis: What Apple's iWork moves mean for Office

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In the second half of 2007, Mac users were supposed to have an Intel-native productivity suite offering, among other things, a presentation program, word processor, and spreadsheet tool. And they do—only this productivity suite doesn’t come from Microsoft. Instead, it’s Apple’s iWork ’08.

Last week’s addition of the spreadsheet application Numbers to iWork finally created a full-featured successor to the now officially-abandoned AppleWorks, which had gone untouched since 2004. But does it also mean stiffer competition for Microsoft’s Office suite, now that iWork offers three of the four apps included in Office? (And the fourth, Entourage, is matched by tools included elsewhere in Mac OS X.)

If iWork ’08’s release signals a renewal of hostilities that have been largely dormant since the late ’90s, you’d have a hard time convincing representatives from either Apple or Microsoft. Perhaps that’s because as intriguing as an iWork-versus-Office storyline may be in some quarters, the realities of the marketplace seem to nip any would-be feud in the bud.

Office: ‘Still pretty entrenched’

For all the ease Numbers brings to spreadsheets, it’s still a 1.0 version of an application, with all the mixture of potential and missing features that phrase implies. Office, on the other hand, remains the preeminent suite of its kind, used widely not just on the Mac platform, but among businesses of all sorts of shapes, sizes and computing platforms. “If you look at Office,” said Tim Bajarin, president of consulting firm Creative Strategies, “it’s still pretty entrenched” among business and education users.

Still, the arrival of iWork ’08 comes at an interesting time in the Mac market—barely a week after Microsoft announced that the release of Office 2008 would be delayed until January. Microsoft cited what Macintosh Business Unit general manager Craig Eisler called a “perfect storm” of factors—the switch to Intel-based processors, a change in Office file formats, and the fact that Microsoft is building this version of Office with Apple’s Xcode developer tools.

Whatever the reasoning behind the delay, it doesn’t change the fact that Mac users will need to wait another five months for an Intel-native version of Office; iWork runs natively on both Intel- and PowerPC-based Macs right now.

For its part, Apple isn’t touting iWork as an Office replacement, let alone an Office killer. Rather, the company says, its productivity suite is aimed at people who’d prefer a Mac-like approach to tasks such as word-processing and spreadsheets.

“One of the things that you’ll see in some of our materials is, ‘Productivity the Mac way,’” said Rob Schoeben, Apple’s vice president of applications product marketing. “That means, ‘I bought a Mac on purpose. I bought into the idea that things should look right and be well-designed and really easy to use.’ They want to enjoy the way they work, they want their work product to look great, and [they want to be] fundamentally integrated into iLife. If you buy into all that, that’s going to be appealing.”

Meanwhile, executives from Microsoft’s Mac Business Unit don’t sound particularly threatened by another productivity suite, even one that’s developed by the same company that makes the hardware and operating system on which the suites run. While calling iWork ’08 “an interesting option for some users,” Mac Business Unit marketing manager Amanda Lefebvre said that the Mac version of Office appeals to users with very demanding document-sharing needs.

“For us, it’s about allowing people to deliver really great documents across platforms,” Lefebvre said. “With Office 2004, it’s proven that it is an essential piece of software. We will deliver on that even more with [Office 2008].”

Document compatibility is crucial for any suite of applications that hopes to make hay in Office’s space. And that appears to have been a major focus with the iWork ’08 apps—the latest version of Pages, for example, delivers improved exporting to Word, even with graphics-heavy documents, while Numbers offers compatibility with many Excel spreadsheets, though users may need to modify some of them. (There is no support for macros in Numbers, and some formulas are unsupported as well.)

What’s more, iWork shipped with support for the Open XML file format that’s native to Microsoft Office 2007. Adding such support to the Mac version of Office is one of the reasons behind its delayed release, so its presence in iWork is “embarrassing” for Microsoft, according to one analyst.

“This was the ultimate insult to injury,” JupiterResearch vice president and research director Michael Gartenberg told Computerworld. “Not only has Microsoft not delivered the ability to read and write Open XML in its Mac Office, but at the end of the day, Apple was the one who delivered.”

Who iWork is for

Still, for users regularly exchanging files with co-workers and clients, Office’s seamless compatibility will make it tough for iWork to make much of an inroad. Office “is still an essential piece of software for our customers,” Microsoft’s Lefebvre said.

While Apple’s Schoeben describes iWork’s compatibility with Office as “pretty solid,” he concedes that there are users who would not want to drop Office in favor of Apple’s suite. “If you need to constantly roundtrip with other people who are using an Excel spreadsheet, you want Excel,” he said.

But not every user works under those circumstances, Apple hastens to add. “If you’re going to create something yourself, if 90 to 95 percent compatibility [with Excel] is fine, if you don’t really care about pivot tables and macros and things like that, you’ll prefer [Numbers],” Schoeben said.

Indeed, that’s where Apple figures to make the biggest inroads with its latest version of iWork—among users who need a word-processing or spreadsheet tool for their personal use, but don’t need all the features—or the higher price tag—of Office’s apps.

“There are segments of the market where Office is overkill,” Creative Strategies’ Bajarin said.

Apple has another reason for bolstering its own productivity suite apart from trying to reach users who might otherwise be overwhelmed by Office. The more powerful a suite iWork becomes, the less dependent the company is on Microsoft to produce timely Office updates.

What lies ahead

Consider that 10 years ago this month, Bill Gates appeared at Macworld Expo in Boston to announce a deal where Microsoft would buy $150 million of Apple stock. More important, however, was the part of the Apple-Microsoft pact where the Redmond-based software giant agreed to keep developing a Mac version of Office. That move lent credibility to the Mac platform at a time when Apple was struggling.

These days, Apple’s standing is dramatically different. The company just enjoyed its best quarter for Mac sales ever, and, with a market capitalization of more than $100 billion and $7.1 billion in cash on hand, it finds itself on a solid financial footing.

Yet, Apple and Microsoft continue to operate under a series of pacts that keep Office on the platform. The latest five-year agreement was announced in 2006 calls on Microsoft to develop Office for both PowerPC- and Intel-based Macs.

And Apple’s strong Mac sales momentum may be a major reason why Silverlight, Microsoft’s new rich-media browser plug-in technology meant to compete with Adobe’s Flash, supports Intel-based Mac systems as well as Windows PCs.

But while Office remains a fixture on the Mac platform, other Microsoft apps—everything from Internet Explorer to Virtual PC to Windows Media Player—have fallen by the wayside. What if Office were to join them once the current pact between Apple and Microsoft runs out?

“It wouldn’t be catastrophic,” said Bajarin, hastening to add that he believes a vibrant Mac version of Office remains part of Microsoft’s strategy. “But it would be a significant blow.”

For that reason, Bajarin adds, enhancing iWork could be seen as “pre-emptive” move on Apple’s part. Adding more applications and features to a productivity suite now spares Apple from the pressure of having to do it later.

JupiterResearch’s Gartenberg took a more stark view in his interview with Computerworld . “Office for the Mac is just not a real priority for Microsoft,” he told the IT publication. “And that’s not likely to change any time soon.”

Editorial director Jason Snell contributed to this report.

This story, "Analysis: What Apple's iWork moves mean for Office" was originally published by PCWorld.

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