iWork.com: First Impressions

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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