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Summary:

I’m obsessed with Cloud Computing. So at this week’s Macworld, the moment Phil Schiller announced the availability of iWork.com Beta, I was all over it, practically foaming at the mouth as I feverishly bashed the URL into Safari.

iworkdotcomI’ll admit it – I’m obsessed with Cloud Computing. From the earliest distributed computing projects (like Seti@home) to FolderShare (way before Microsoft bought it) all the way through to Azure and MobileMe, I’ve embraced every Cloud service I could find.

Of course, being a Big Geek I would have tried all those services anyway. But it just so happens I do have practical reasons for embracing The Cloud, and they’re mostly based around a never-ending search for the perfect Collaboration tool.

I run my own business and have an iTeam, if you will. Living in different parts of the UK (and a few key colleagues overseas), we communicate constantly by email. I must review their work daily and offer guidance and support in a timely manner as they are doing the work, not when it’s finished. Yes, it’s all very serious and grown-up. It just happens to be serious and grown-up and something that delights my Inner Geek (iGeek?).

So when Phil Schiller announced the availability of the iWork.com Beta, I was all over it, practically foaming at the mouth as I feverishly bashed the URL into Safari. 

iWork.com is a Cloud-based collaboration environment for iWork ’09 users. Inside each of the iWork ’09 applications is a new “iWork.com” button on the toolbar.

The new iWork.com toolbar button

The new iWork.com toolbar button

Clicking the button fires-up a connection between your currently active document and your iWork.com account. (If you have a .Mac or MobileMe account, you automatically have an iWork.com account.)

iWork.com Upload dialogue

iWork.com upload dialogue

As you might expect, the “To” field conveniently hooks-in to Address Book, making email entry super-simple. Some basic options allow you to choose which of your mailboxes the invitation will be sent from, there’s room for a short message to your recipients and check boxes for setting what you want viewers of the document to do.

Upload/Download Options

Upload/Download Options

And here’s the really clever part that everyone who has ever collaborated in an online workspace will love: the ability to automatically make the document available for your Viewer’s to download in all the most common file formats. If you’ve ever had to re-save the same document again and again in multiple different formats, you know how delightful this option is!

Even better, if you later download a shared document from iWork.com in the Pages ’09 format, any comments that have been added to it by other users will be perfectly preserved. Thank you, Apple.

(Sorry, I just need a moment. I’ll be alright. I’m just a little emotional…)

Once you’ve finished setting all your options, clicking Share will:

  • upload the document to iWork.com
  • generate copies of the file in the other formats you selected
  • send an email invitation to your chosen recipients
  • send a confirmation email to your own inbox letting you know everything got shared successfully

For a 1.0 release, this is all very slick and, yeah, it “just works” — pretty much what we expect from Cupertino. (No one mention MobileMe!)

Visiting your shared document online presents you with a simple web-based version of it that appears indistinguishable from the master copy on your hard drive.

A Pages document on iWorks.com

A Pages document on iWork.com

Comments are much as you’d expect. Click and drag to select a block of text and then hit the “Add Comment” button at the top of the page.

Comments

Comments

Document Notes provide a handy way to record information that wouldn’t be appropriate for a Comment.

Document notes

Document notes

Downloading the document is a simple matter of selecting a file format from a drop-down list.

Download options

Download options

Apple isn’t exactly first out of the gate with this kind of tool. In 2007 Corel Corp. partnered with ConceptShare to bring collaborative workspaces to CorelDRAW. And, of course, Microsoft’s Sharepoint-based “Office Live Workspace” offers its own flavor of online collaboration. 

I’ve tried all of these (and more), and I believe Apple has managed to strike the right balance between functionality and simplicity. Sure, there’s no online document editing, no way of seeing which users are currently viewing a document, no form of versioning or recording changes over time. Currently it’s not possible even to organize your online documents into folders or logical groups (say, organized by Projects or Categories).

But there’s also no need to install browser plug-ins to make it all work. You can share documents with anyone, regardless of their computer platform or OS. One of my favorite features is that I can share with colleagues and know they are not being forced to create accounts in order to use the service — unlike Microsoft’s draconian policy of requiring every Office Live Workspace user to have a Windows Live ID.

Remarkably, iWork.com is already set to become a crucial part of my workflow. It’s a functional, stylish, and accessible collaboration solution that is fast becoming a key part of my business IT strategy. For a product that’s only been out a couple of weeks, that’s pretty impressive. It’s already such a pleasure to use, I can’t wait to see how it evolves.

Currently in Beta, iWork.com is free for all iWork ’09 users, though Schiller did confirm that this will eventually become a subscription-based service. Whether that’s something entirely new, or a part of MobileMe, I’ll be one of the first in line with my credit card at the ready! 

iWork.com icon courtesy of Cocoia.

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  1. It certainly looks like a handy service, but if they do indeed charge for it, it ought to be included at no extra charge with a MobileMe subscription.

  2. great review. thanks a lot!

  3. Great article/review, by the way, anyone who is willing to embrace new IT solutions shouldn’t be calling themselves geeks. You should be applauded for your commitment!

  4. Although impressive online rendering of the documents(with a strong resemblance to the iWork native format), the “collaboration” falls a bit short. True collaboration is online editing, something this service lacks. The “trade-off” is downloadable copies, but with no real revision control, I find it hardly useful. Some tout it as a simple way to share documents. Well, there’s plenty of services available to do that, including free ones, like Dropbox. Its “note system” isn’t enough to sell me on this one.

  5. Kimber Lockhart Monday, January 19, 2009

    @ecchi: I wholeheartedly disagree with your conception of “true collaboration” as group editing. Collaboration is all about working with others in such a way that all the talents of the group contribute to achieving the goal.

    There are many situations where group editing (aka editing by the masses) is the last thing you want. Imagine a marketing manager needing to get feedback from engineering on a product brief. He or she doesn’t want to open up the document for editing, but does want to get the engineer’s full opinion.

    Apps like this allow you to easily get feedback from others in their areas of expertise while retaining control for the document owner. The iterative cycle is quickened, and better quality documents emerge much faster. To me, that’s the very definition of and business case for workplace collaboration.

  6. Kimber,

    Bingo!

    To hear some people tell it you’d think the only way for anyone to contribute to a document is to specifically edit themselves. As if no author ever passed around a draft to gather comments/feedback and then make changes accordingly.

    Liam,

    Thanks for the review. Your point about not having to save the document in multiple formats is a great one, as is not requiring the participants to have to register for some service and login.

  7. I concur with Kimber, Tom, and Liam. It hits just the right notes, removing the biggest roadblock to iWork use (document sharing) while also showcasing the ease-of-use and design of the iWork suite. In my own office, the staff largely uses Entourage, so sending Pages docs required zipping or conversion. Now I can send them a link from which they can download the file.

    Where I see the most value is sharing documents with clients. Sharing Word documents is always frightening for me because I cannot guarantee the recipient will see it as intended. Frankly, no one seems to be able to open and see the same Word document. And often, when clients tinker with the Word file, it only exacerbates the problems. I don’t want my clients editing the document and I want them to see the document as I intended it. So far, iWork.com does that. I cannot tell you how valuable that will be. PDFing is great, but commenting in Acrobat is not difficult, but not easy. And I really don’t want to talk about Word. I wish Microsoft would dial back on the “features” and make what they have better. Working with images in the new Word is an absolute nightmare.

    By the way, there is a form of version control, but it looks to be author/uploader specific. In other words, if I upload a document, make changes, and then upload the revised document. It saves both with versioning. But I don’t believe that someone I share it with can upload the document.

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  10. I agree that iWork.com strikes a nice balance: reviewing and commenting on a document, but not a free-for-all edit.

    I imagine it will be enhanced over time to include more features, but I can mention that it does have a versioning that does not get mentioned in reviews. The document originator can download the original document as an iWork ’09 document (from the originator’s management center menu, not the document itself) and user notes are (evidently) included in the file. The document can then be changed and re-uploaded.

    The re-upload can either overwrite the original, including sticky notes but not the document notes on the right, or it can be uploaded as a new version which is 1-up numbered and sends a notification of the new address to all participants.

    I’ve not gotten a chance to fully test the workflow yet, but this does provide a way for participants to give feedback and watch the document change over time, with the simplicity of having only one author — the originator.

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