iWork and Office: Can they work together?

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Apple says iWork is compatible with Microsoft Office. But what does that really mean and is it true?

It’s true that you can move documents between iWork and Office. But when you do, they may look or function differently than they did in their parent programs. In Macworlds recent feature comparing Word and Pages, Excel and Numbers, and PowerPoint and Keynote, we discussed the differences in features between those programs. But (as several readers pointed out in comments to those stories), we didn’t cover the file-compatibility or interoperability issues that arise when you’re trying to move documents from one suite to another. That’s what I’d like to do here.


Office Files in iWork

When you attempt to open an Office file in iWork using File: Open, iWork doesn’t really open them: it imports them instead, creating a new translated file in Pages, Numbers, or Keynote format and leaving the original Word, Excel, or PowerPoint file untouched.

iWork applications can import files in Microsoft’s newer Open XML file formats (which use the filename extensions .docx, .xlsx, and .pptx). These are the default file formats of Office 2008 for Mac, and Office 2007 for Windows. Office 2004 can only create the older Microsoft formats (.doc, .xls, and .ppt), but iWork can import these as well.

If you have both Office and iWork installed on your Mac, and you want Pages to open when you double-click a Word file, select the file and chose Get Info from the File menu. Expand the “Open with” section and chose Pages from the popup menu.

iWork import warning
When it imports or exports Office files, iWork tells you what got lost in the translation.
When importing an Office file, iWork will often bring up a Warning box telling you which aspects of the original document were removed or changed. And when it does import items, they will often appear differently in iWork. The more complex the Office file, the more likely you will lose something in the translation.

One major Office feature that iWork does not support is Visual Basic Application (VBA) macros from Office 2004 for Mac and Office 2007 for Windows. When you import a file containing a macro, any macro in the document is lost.

You can recreate much of the functionality of an Office macro using AppleScript. The catch is that you have to create the script mostly by hand. There is no way to automatically translate macros into AppleScripts. Which means you’re out of luck if you need to trade a macro-laden file back and forth with Office users.

Don’t feel left out. Office 2008 users have the same problem as iWork users: Office 2008 for Mac does not support macros. This is one reason why some Mac users are not upgrading from Office 2004. Microsoft seems to have noticed this and has announced that it will put macros back in the next major version of Office, which probably won’t be anytime soon.

Word to Pages Many of Word’s features translate well into Pages ‘08. For instance, Word’s track changes feature imports well into Pages, retaining the names of the editors and the dates of the changes. Styles created in Word get moved over, as do most layout items, such tables, footnotes, and graphics. Some of the items may not end up in the same locations as in the original file, but they will get imported.

In cases where Pages doesn’t support a feature in Word, Pages will attempt to convert the item to something else. Pages will translate Word Art from a Word 2008 file into a text box without the curves in the text and without the outlines and drop shadows. Pages doesn’t support text form fields, but will import the text entered into Word forms.

But even when the original file doesn’t include fancy Word features, the resulting Pages document isn’t always an exact replica of the original Word document. A common problem is text spilling over from the end of a page onto another page. This can happen when your Mac doesn’t have the font used in the original document, when Pages will substitute another font that is a slightly larger physical size.

A frustrating issue is that you can still have the text overflow problem even when you have the same font, font size, and line spacing set in Word and Pages. The reason is that Word and Pages define line spacing slightly differently, so that “single spaced” in Pages is slightly larger than in Word, causing a page full of text to spill into a second page.

To fix the issue, redefine the line spacing in both Word and Pages as pixels rather than lines. A setting of 16 pixels is usually equal to 1 line in most fonts. Pixel settings in Word and Pages are the same size, so the imported document will look more like the original.

Excel function incompatibility in Numbers
Numbers will delete hundreds of Excel functions that it doesn't support, but will mark affected cells and show you the deleted formula.
Excel to Numbers Functions will be a major compatibility issue for importing Excel spreadsheets. Numbers ‘08 has about 170 functions, about half as many in Excel 2008. Many of the missing functions are statistical and numeric functions, and Numbers doesn’t have any of Excel’s database functions or Excel’s three-dozen engineering functions. If an Excel spreadsheet contains a function that numbers doesn’t support, Numbers will import only the calculated value of a cell. Numbers will flag these cells with a blue triangle, which you can click to see the Excel function that was deleted.

Numbers also doesn’t support Excel’s ability to password-protect hidden cells and rows. Numbers will translate these as unhidden, but empty cells. The only way to retain the information in these cells is to have the creator of the Excel document remove the password protection.

PowerPoint to Keynote Slide presentations are tricky to move around between Mac and Windows versions of PowerPoint. So it should be no surprise that you’d lose some of a PowerPoint slideshow when importing it into Keynote. But slide show compatibility problems aren’t consistent, and can really hamper your ability to view the presentation.

Multimedia and slide transitions and builds are a main area of compatibility problems. For embedded movies and audio, QuickTime is the best bet for importing into Keynote and being able to play. Unfortunately, video or audio used in slide builds can interfere with automatic transitions between slides, to the point where you won’t even be able to manually advance to the next slide. The solution is to either remove the automatic transition or remove the multimedia build from the slide.

Keynote does a fairly good job retaining other types of transitions and builds, including a 3-D flip screen transition, and builds with pictures and text bouncing or spinning in.

With text, PowerPoint imports can have the same problems as Word-to-Pages translations, including text overflow problems due to font substitution. If a PowerPoint 2008 presentation contains Word Art, Keynote will retain the typeface if the font is installed in your Mac. Keynote will keep Word Art drop shadows but lose character outlines and multi-color effects.

iWork to Office

Mac and Windows users won’t be able to open native-format iWork files in Office. If you want Office users to see inside your documents, you’ll need to create a new file by exporting your iWork file to an Office format. To do so in Pages, for example, you select File: Export, select Word, click Next, then give your exported file a name.

Keep in mind that iWork applications will only export in Microsoft’s older .doc, .xls, and .ppt file formats; they can’t export in the newer Open XML file formats (.docx, .xlsx, and .pptx) that are used in Office 2008 for Mac and Office 2007 for Windows. But these newer Office versions can read the older .doc,. xls, and .ppt, which are exportable from iWork.

But if your co-workers or clients insist on receiving Open XML files, your options or limited. You can paste simple text into Leopard’s version of TextEdit, which can export to .docx. Unfortunately, there are no third-party utilities that can create Open XML files at this point.

If your users can live with read-only files, exporting iWork documents as PDF will retain the formatting with your original. Keynote has other read-only options that do a better job. For exporting editable files to Office, you’ll need to be care of how you create your iWork document.

Pages to Word Both Pages and Word support spreadsheet-like calculations in tables, but the two aren’t completely compatible. Embedded spreadsheets in Pages documents take some massaging before they’ll work in Word.

When you look at a table in an exported Word document, the spreadsheet functionality will appear to have been deleted; changing the numbers in cells won’t recalculate the formula cells. Pages only partially converts the spreadsheet table: the formulas are still there in the Word file, but the cell results get converted to fixed text and the number formatting is missing. To get back to a functioning spreadsheet, you need to delete the fixed text and apply number formatting using the Formula item in Word’s Table menu. This may be a lot to ask of a Word user to do. If you want a working spreadsheet, you may be better off using Numbers with text boxes.

There are also formatting issues that cause the exported Word document to look different than the original Pages file. With tables, you may find that a table no longer fits on one page. A little digging around will show that the export function has added paragraph spacing after the text in each row, making the table taller.

A file with a lot graphics can be a problem, as graphics may not be in the same exact place in the Word file. It’s best to avoid using graphics using alpha channels (levels of transparency), as they generally don’t look good when exported to Word.

Numbers to Excel Numbers is a different animal than Excel. Where Excel presents an expansive grid of cells. Numbers is more of a page layout program that lets you add spreadsheet tables, text boxes, and art to a layout. In Excel, text boxes and graphics go on top of the spreadsheet grid.

What this means is that you may need to rearrange your Numbers file so that it will export into something that looks good in Excel.

When you export a Numbers sheet with multiple tables, each one becomes a separate Excel sheet. If you want Excel users to see your single-sheet page layout, don’t use multiple tables on a sheet. Instead, locate all of your tables in a single Numbers grid.

Checkboxes in Numbers are a slick-looking interactive feature, but Excel users won’t see them. Checkboxes get turned into the words “true” or “false” in exported Excel files.

Numbers also has some features that Excel will completely ignore. For instance, Numbers’ table names won’t display in Excel. If you want to name your tables, put the text in a cell. On the flip side, keep graphics outside of cells. Graphics inside of cells won’t get translated to Excel.

Keynote to PowerPoint Exporting presentations to PowerPoint is more of a problem than importing into Keynote.

Presenter notes are the biggest compatibility issue when exporting from Keynote. PowerPoint 2008 won’t open a Keynote file exported to .ppt format if the file contains presenter notes. When the user tries to open it, PowerPoint 2008 will present an error message stating that it has “encountered an error and needs to quit.” The fix is to go back to Keynote and delete the presenter notes, then export again to PowerPoint.

The problem doesn’t occur with PowerPoint 2004 or PowerPoint 2007 for Windows. If you don’t know which version of PowerPoint your target users have, be sure you delete any presenter notes before you export.

You should also avoid using graphics with alpha channels. PowerPoint doesn’t support the feature, so images in the back of a transparent portion may instead appear in front of your alpha-channel graphic.

Keynote doesn’t retain as much of the slide transitions and builds when exporting to PowerPoint as it does when importing. It will substitute a lot of builds with a simple Dissolve, and will delete many slide transitions.

If you’re not interested in dumbing down your presentation, Keynote gives you other export options that will keep more of the pizzazz of your presentation. The best of these is to export your presentation to a QuickTime movie, which will retain slide builds and transitions, sound, and movies. You’ll have to make sure that your Windows users have QuickTime for Windows, a free download from Apple.

If you’re finding that the slide transitions in your exported QuickTime file aren’t smooth, try exporting again with a few changes in the settings. In the export dialog, click QuickTime. In the Formats popup menu that appears, select Custom, then click the Settings button. Here, do two things: unselect “Frame Reordering” and then select “Faster encode (Single-pass).”

If you’re not sure that Windows users will have QuickTime Player, try Keynote’s Export to Flash option. Flash supports some text transitions, such as the sliding in lines of text every time you click. When moving between slides, dissolve is the only effect that Export to Flash supports; it does not support the rotating block transition effect. Flash can also include sound files. Most Windows users should have a Flash player installed. On a Mac, a Flash presentation will play in Safari when double-clicked.

For simpler presentations where you don’t care about transitions or builds, PDF is a good bet. PDF won’t show transitions or play audio or video, but it is universal. Just about every computer user on the planet can open PDF, no matter what presentation software or operating system they have.

Keynote also lets you export to older versions of Keynote, but doesn’t use the Export command. To save in Keynote ‘05 or ‘06 format, use the Save As command, Click “Save a copy as” and then select the version of Keynote.

The Final Word

In general, the simpler the document, the greater the compatibility between iWork and Office. Complex documents don’t do well moving back and forth between been Office and iWork, because you’ll lose something with every translation. In particular, going from PowerPoint-to-Keynote and back to PowerPoint can result in the loss of a lot of effects and general deterioration of the look of the presentation. If you need to have multiple rounds of edits with Office users, you may have to bite the bullet and install a copy of Office.

But for reading Office files and sharing your documents with Office users, iWork can be completely adequate. How much compatibility is enough is up to you.

John Rizzo is the publisher of MacWindows.com and author of several books about Macs and PCs.

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