Expanding iWork with a little help from our open-source friends

by Jochen Wolters

It is often said that even Steve Jobs may have failed at saving Apple after returning to the company if it hadn't been for Microsoft's promise to keep offering a Macintosh version of its flagship Office package. Most of us need to sometimes write letters, run presentations, calculate spreadsheets, etc., so Apple does indeed need to make sure that an "industrial strength" office package is available for the Mac, especially if they want to lure business users over to the platform.

In a recent column, Robert S. Cringely has suggested that Apple should adopt an open-source office package in order to be less dependent on Microsoft, and that OpenOffice.org would be a good choice to build upon. While I do think that Apple's adoption of open source software generally is a good move, I sincerely hope that they won't "port" OpenOffice.org outright, but continue to expand iWork, instead. Here's why.

On my Windows machine at work, I use OpenOffice.org 2 almost daily. It's a capable and feature-rich piece of software, and you definitely can't beat it in the bang-for-your-buck arena. But its roots go back to the mid-nineties and it does show its age in some of its UI concepts. Let me point out just two differences between OOo and iWork to show you what I mean.

Objects vs. Formatting

If you insert a table from the insert menu into your Pages document, it will behave like a real drawing object, i.e., you can select the table, you can drag-n-drop it around, you can select more than one table to make changes to both table's properties in one go, etc. In OOo Writer, a table behaves more like fancy text formatting: a table cannot be selected per se, it cannot be re-positioned by dragging-n-dropping the whole table, you cannot select multiple tables, and, if you want to delete a table, you will run into one of the most un-intuitive features yet: instead of simply clicking on the table and hitting the delete key, you must place the text cursor inside one of the table's cells and select a menu command specifically for deleting tables. That's because the usual cut/copy/paste/delete commands only work on the table's contents, and not on the table itself.


2006-05-13 07:37:26
I seems like they are trying to differentiate iWork from Office as an Office suite with a creative edge. In other words, no spreadsheet, and a word processor that may be somewhat behind Word in terms of straight word processing but is excellent as consumer layout software (and Keynote just kicks Power Point's skinny little ass). With that in mind it seems like the lack of a spreadsheet app is more of a matter of choice then a question of development time or anything. "Let the cubicles use Microsoft's programs, people messing around at home will love what we have thrown together for them."
Jochen Wolters
2006-05-13 08:27:58

Overall, I agree with your point of view, except for one detail: I'd say that iWork already has enough functionality to appeal to the average business user, i.e., the app's target audience is not limited to style-conscious home users.

And with regards to spreadsheets: for starters, it'd probably suffice to simply add more capable math functions to the "calculating tables" already found in Pages and Keynote.

2006-05-13 08:48:16
Perhaps you could try out NeoOffice [http://www.neooffice.org/] in an OS X environment. While I'm sure it still falls short of the flexibility you (rightly) admire so much in iWork, it is a formidable contender as an Office competitor, especially when you factor in the function per dollar.

If I ever do purchase iWork, it will be after they add in a spreadsheet and possibly a database module -- or maybe a spreadsheet with tentacles into Core Data, merging the spreadsheet and database concepts, as Pages merges the word processor and page composition (Illustrator Lite) paradigms.

However, while I kinda agree with you that Apple is unlikely to adopt one of the open source Office alternatives, I believe it would be because such a product would be a revenue generator for Apple, and they would want to avoid any licensing complications from embedding open source code into a proprietary revenue generating product. Where they have made use of open source code to date, it has been in ways that are either not identifiable as a salable product (you can look upon Safari as an open source based free product, as you do not pay a separate price for it, and they have made the WebKit code available as open source), or (in the cases of OpenSSH, SQLite, etc) are buried deep within a salable product (OS X) and are used pretty much unchanged from the distributed code. In such cases they can rightly claim that they are distributing that code for free (indeed, I think it is within the Darwin code base), and building the proprietary code upon it. I can't see them doing that with a salable product, like any of the components of iLife, or iWork. These products make money for Apple, and they don't want to share any of the code.

2006-05-13 11:34:26
Dave: NeoOffice and OpenOffice are the same thing. All of the complaints about OO also apply to NO.

Jochen: I completely agree. The look and usability of Pages is far beyond that of OO. And yet that doesn't mean Pages couldn't adopt some of OO's features. For instance, I'm shocked that Pages still offers no support whatsoever for the ODF format. Unless the world adopts an open, standard file format, it will never be free from MS Office domination.

2006-05-13 18:23:02
I agree with Cringely about building on top of OOo.

To delete a table the easiest way to do so is to use the mouse. Just select it just as if you were going to select a sentence: you click & hold in front of the table then drag to the end of the table and hit backspace or delete or ctrl-click the selection and select delete, just like any other program. Maybe I just don't understand your point on deleting. Although I would love to be able to just "grab" the table and just move it where ever. I totally agree on that point it is a pain to freely position the table.

I also see you've never used the navigator, to get to it get hit F5 or go to the menubar: Edit > Navigator. This little program organizes every type of object you have in your document. I.e. You have 3 tables in your document, you can just open navigator click the [+] next to Tables and it will expand and show you all the tables you have in the document. From here just click on the one you want to delete and hit delete. Since you can name tables in OOo it make it really easy to find the table you want. If you don't name your tables they will show up as Table1, Table 2, Table3.

Sorry to go on and on, but I love OOo.

2006-05-13 21:20:08
As usual, Cringely's drawing over-the-top conclusions without little fact and lots of 'what if we lived in another universe'. I don't know why he's widely read. His predictions and conclusions are almost always wrong. I'm afraid I have to put him in the same journalistic box as Dvorak and Stan Beer, all of 'em writing for page hits.

In answer to Cringely's assertion that Apple need an MS Office contingency: Microsoft have committed to Office on Mac for years to come. Sun/OpenOffice have committed to porting OO to Cocoa (sometime soon?). Why would Apple help Sun out with OpenOffice? There's no need.

iWork is selling well, and most appreciate its different UI. While some comments have suggested that Apple should adopt the ODF (and this is a worthy goal), it's more important for the majority of Mac users that Apple adopt the defacto standard of .doc and OpenXML. The time spent of supporting ODF (which is not widely used) could be better spent on improving Word compatibility.

The only way for Apple to do this is to jettison Pages current file format, and instead use ODF. Better still, adopt both ODF and OpenXML by providing XSL 'converters' for both. This probably isn't possible given the feature sets of both are different and in part unique, so transposing these to the existing ODF/XML structure might be impossible.

As an aside, the UI in Office and it's clone OpenOffice is terrible. Things are harder to find and do than they should be. For example, digging around in menus, dropdown menus and dialog boxes just to change one part of a style. Pages UI is a breath of fresh air.

Mike A
2006-05-14 04:59:44
Personally I love Pages. As an engineering student, I use it mostly for various coursework and resource. Some of the reasons I use it are:

* Word quite simply cannot handle pictures and PDFs properly as far as I'm concerned
* I prefer Pages' interface to anything else out there
* Pages can actually handle Styles in a way that makes sense to me (although it could still do with some work)

However, I still need to use a spreadsheet! Whilst Pages and Keynote are far better than their Microsoft Office equivalents, I still have to buy Office just for a spreadsheet. This is such a shame becayse, Excel is the best available today, it really isn't all that great a program.

Excel typifies the Microsoft approach in so many ways. Yes, it can do pretty much everything, but I don't need it all, and the interface is really quite poor. The iWork "Inspector" approach would work fantastically for spreasheets.

David Smiley
2006-05-14 20:10:14
Mike, don't purchase MS Office just because you need Excel (unless you've got money to burn). Try NeoOffice (OpenOffice), or Mesa: http://www.plsys.co.uk/mesa.htm
Jochen Wolters
2006-05-16 03:16:26

Thanks for bringing up the licensing aspect. OpenOffice.org is licensed under the LGPL, the same license that the KHTML developers are using. I'd assume that using any OOo code would be legal even when used in a commercial software package like iWork if the adopted code were put into a library similar to Web Kit.


Yes, support of ODF would be a very cool feature, especially if Apple still ensured full ongoing support for MS Office file formats, as well.


Whenever I did a "Select All" on the table to be deleted, and hit Delete, it would clear all of the contents of the table, but would not delete the table itself, although this procedure was also given in the (German translation of the) user manual.

Maybe using the navigator will make this easier, so thank you very much for pointing out this feature!


Putting Cringely in the same box as Dvorak is a bit harsh, as Dvorak definitely is in a class all by his own. ;)

As for file format support in iWork, why not add this functionality via a framework — think "Office Kit" —, so that, if a programmer uses the ODF format for their application, exporting files to any other file format would be as easy as supporting picture and movie formats via QuickTime.


If you do go out and buy MS Office, make sure you buy it at the student discount they offer.


Thanks for mentioning the Mesa spreadsheet. I've had a look at that app some time ago, and its price-performance-ratio is very impressive.