iWork.com: One Part of a Much Grander Vision

Very nearly one year ago I got my hands on Apple’s cloud-based document collaboration service, iWork.com, and now that the service is about to celebrate its first birthday, now seemed a good time to take a look at what’s happened in the last 12 months, and offer some guesses at what new features we might see coming soon. But as I started writing this article, I realized iWork.com is just one small part of a much bigger picture that sees Apple potentially changing what we have come to expect of Cloud computing — and what it means for just about anyone with a Mac.

At the start of 2009, about the best online collaboration services were Google Docs and Office Live Workspace. Since then, the most exciting addition to that space is Google Wave. I do so much online collaboration I’ve tried all of the services mentioned here (plus many more), so back when iWork.com was first released it genuinely excited me. Here’s what I wrote back then:

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 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.

Despite asserting in that article iWork.com was “set to become a crucial part of my workflow” it never happened because, after a few weeks of regular use, I grew frustrated with the lack of features I originally thought I could live without. (In fact at one point I considered buying a Mac for one of my colleagues just so we could both use iChat and Pages!)

iWork.com has barely changed over the course of the year, but I’ve remained hopeful Apple would do something worthwhile with it. I love Google Wave, but I just know that if Apple put some real effort into iWork.com I’d switch to it in a heartbeat. Apple could do for online collaboration what it did for spreadsheets; turn an otherwise dull but inescapable business activity into something elegant, stylish and fun.

That said, it’s got a long way to go. Google Docs is ‘limited’ only by comparison to locally-installed productivity software such as iWork or Microsoft Office. For a free online software suite that works in just about any modern browser, it’s an awfully tough act to follow. Microsoft, too, is doing good work with the new online versions of its Office software. (Say what you will about Microsoft, it knows how to make great productivity apps.) iWork.com looks pretty pointless next to those giants.

Focused on its Future

Cloud computing is now part of the landscape of online life. Web based collaboration is no longer the minefield of incompatibilities and faltering functionality it once was. What is absent is an end-to-end, platform-independent (but unashamedly-platform-enhanced) solution that’s dirt-simple to use — and gorgeous to look at, too.

The good news is Apple is definitely not abandoning iWork.com; in fact, I suspect iWork.com is an integral future part of a much grander Cloud strategy. Last week Apple published a job listing for an engineer to join its Productivity (read: iWork) Team to work on a “…scalable rich internet application.” And though iWork.com has been somewhat neglected, Apple has busily pursued an aggressive Cloud computing initiative that began with MobileMe’s “Exchange for the rest of us” services in 2008 and one year later included a $1 billion server farm in North Carolina. Most recently, Apple bought Lala — very probably so it could acquire its media streaming technology.

Apple is clearly focused on its future in the Cloud, and so far we’ve only witnessed its first awkward baby steps in that direction. I suspect iWork.com features more significantly in that strategy than anyone has guess.

Users are starting to think of the Cloud less as a remote hard drive for family photos and more as a platform for realtime communication, collaboration and on-demand entertainment. I think Apple not only understands this shift in perception, but is positioning itself to make the most of it.

So, as we start the new year and wonder what Apple has in store for us in 2010, consider this scenario; an iSight camera in every Mac, iPhone and iSlate, Exchange-services for everyone, fast over-the-air iTunes streaming, a vastly-improved iChat and iWork.com, and MobileMe to elegantly and effortlessly tie the whole gorgeous lot together. Owning a Mac suddenly takes on a whole new exciting perspective!

What are your thoughts? Do you agree Apple has a far more sophisticated Cloud strategy than anyone previously thought? Or is this crazy talk?


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