When you want to collaborate with someone on a document or project, Apple’s iCloud.com offers collaboration features that can make it easy to work with others. Whether you just want friends or colleagues to make comments on your documents, or whether you are creating documents with others, you can use Apple’s iWork apps (Pages, Numbers, and Keynote) and iCloud.com to streamline this process.
Here’s a look at how you can collaborate with iCloud.com, the features it offers, and what’s missing.
Getting documents into the cloud
When you create iWork documents, you can store them on iCloud Drive. Once your documents are in the cloud, you can share them with others on iCloud.com. To use iCloud Drive, you need at least iOS 8 or OS X Mavericks.
On a Mac, you turn on iCloud Drive in System Preferences > iCloud. On iOS, it’s in Settings > iCloud. Once you have enabled iCloud Drive, you can store documents you create with the iWork apps, as well as other apps that support that feature. (Only iOS apps and OS X apps sold through the Mac App Store can use this feature.)
By default, you get 5GB free storage on iCloud, which you can use to store your documents, photos, email, and iOS device backups. If you plan to use iCloud Drive a lot, consider upgrading to a more capacious plan. For example, you can boost your storage to 50GB for $1 a month, and you can get as much as 1TB of iCloud storage (that’s $10 a month).
When you create documents in iWork apps on iOS, you have to save them to iCloud; when you create a document in an iWork app on OS X, you can choose to save it locally or in iCloud Drive. You probably don’t need to save all the documents you create on your Mac in the cloud; save those that you want to share, or that you want to be able to access on other devices.
Once you’ve saved a document on iCloud Drive, you can share it with a friend or colleague. In Pages, Numbers, or Keynote, choose Share > Share Link via iCloud, or click the Share button in the toolbar. You can choose to allow the person you share the document with to edit the document, or, if you only want them to see the document and not make changes, choose Read Only from the Permissions menu. You can protect the document by clicking Add Password and setting a password; you’ll need to communicate that to the other person securely. (The best way may be over the telephone or FaceTime.)
Next, choose how to invite the other person to access your document. You can do this via Mail, Messages, Twitter, Facebook, or other means, or you can just copy a link and send it yourself. You might want to do the latter if you communicate with others via Slack or a similar collaboration tool. Click Share Document, and enter the email address, or other information needed, to share it.
When your collaborator receives a link to a document, they click it to view the document on iCloud.com. They don’t need an iCloud account and they can access the document in any web browser, even on Windows or Android. They enter their name (so you can follow the changes they make) and can edit your document if you’ve allowed them to do so. If not, they can simply view it.
If you’ve allowed a collaborator to edit your document, then the changes they make update in the app you’re using if you have the document open. For example, if you’ve created a spreadsheet in Numbers and a colleague edits it on the web, your document updates automatically. This doesn’t happen in real time, but takes a few seconds for changes to appear.
It’s better to make changes in the iCloud.com web interface. You’ll see a cursor when a collaborator is editing a document and if you click the user icon in the iCloud.com toolbar you can click on a user’s name and see which sections they’ve changed. However, once changes are made, you can’t see the exact changes. If you click a user’s name in the user popup, you may see the section they edited—this isn’t always the case—but not their exact changes.
Sometimes, two or more people will make changes at the same time. Or you’ll make a change locally in Pages, Numbers, or Keynote and a collaborator will make an edit on iCloud.com. When this happens, you will both see a dialog saying that the documents are out of sync, and the users who are invited to edit the document will be prevented from editing anything. It’s up to the document’s owner to decide which version to keep—you can keep both, if you want, to review them later—but, again, you can’t compare the changes. You only see the date and time of the versions and where they were updated (iCloud.com or a specific computer). It’s best for the document’s creator and owner to ensure that people don’t simultaneously edit documents, which, of course, limits the usefulness of this feature.
You can browse a version history—click the Tools icon (the wrench), and then choose Browse All Versions—but you can only restore different versions entirely, not view them to compare them with your original or final document. If you’re used to change tracking in Microsoft Office apps or ever Google Docs, you’ll be disappointed by the way this feature works with iWork apps.
You can, however, browse versions on a Mac. In your iWork application with a shared document open, choose File > Revert to > Browse All Versions. You’ll see your current version to the left, and older versions to the right. These may be different versions containing only your additions and edits or versions edited on iCloud.com. You can navigate through these versions as you would when viewing locally-saved versions. Some of these versions may be in the cloud; in this case, they display a cloud icon followed by the text Load This Version. Click the text to download and view the version, and then compare it to your final document. You can restore any of these versions, or note changes made and then apply them to your document.
While iWork’s collaboration features are interesting, their weaknesses make them useful only for the most basic editing and changes. iCloud.com really needs proper change tracking for these collaboration features to be fully usable. They’re a great way to let someone view a document, especially if they don’t have a Mac, but the lack of actual change tracking means that you won’t see enough precise information about edits.