Apple's iWork for iCloud beta is super-speedy, a first look

Apple [AAPL] has opened up its iWork for iCloud beta to a large number of new beta testers, so I've spent a couple of hours taking a look at what's inside the cloud-based productivity suite. What follows is a whistle-stop tour of what's good and what's missing in the suite so far.

The good

When you first launch any of these apps you'll be presented with a range of templates (including a blank page) for use in the app, just as you are in the desktop version.

All three apps are fast. Move on page items around and you'll see near real-time text wrapping around objects and images; you experience near instant application of formatting, style and even font substitutions (I count 47 fonts within Pages).

Performance is reassuring, though we will have to wait until the suite is made more widely available before we can be certain Apple's servers can consistently maintain the suite's responsiveness when it is being used by large numbers of people at once. Given that iCloud is frequently slated for performance log jams this point will be critical to the success of this suite.

The apps appear simplified -- there's certainly enough within them to work on existing projects and to create reports, presentations or data charts when you're on the road and can't access your own computer.

If I'm honest, I quite like this simplicity -- I've long believed productivity apps should be sold on a modular basis, in which users pay a little more to access those features they need, as they require them.

The problem for most productivity software providers is that they attempt to stimulate sales of new versions of their solutions on the basis of additional features. This leads to so-called "feature creep", sometimes to the detriment of performance.

Don't be put off by this simplicity -- it's not at the expense of a decent toolkit. You can drag and drop images from the desktop into presentations, and enjoy a full range of tools, such as borders, shadows, opacity effects and so on, along with spacing guides. You can add and manipulate frames, masks and shadows.

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Missing

One key element that's missing in the service so far appears to be collaboration. Where a Google Docs user might choose to share work on a document with two or more people, you can't do the same in iWork for iCloud.

Given that Microsoft, Google and others already integrate collaborative tools within their productivity apps, this seems an obvious place in which the company can improve its offering in future. To be fair the suite is in beta and it's far more important the company ensure the apps are rock solid stable before adding collaborative tools.

Perhaps one way in which such collaboration might be enabled could be inclusion of Facetime support from within iWork for iCloud (talk to the people you are working on a project with within the same window as the work you are doing. It also seems possible Apple could enable Remote Access to a user's iCloud files on a permission-only basis, so others could simultaneously access the same workspace. The company does after all have the technologies it needs in order to achieve this.

During my brief exploration of Keynote I did notice at least one missing transition: one existing presentation used the Revolve transition between frames, yet the iCloud version replaced this with Dissolve. Essentially this suggests that part of the trade-off for iWork for iCloud consists of a more limited feature palette in exchange for the speed and responsiveness of the app.

Perhaps the biggest missing feature I've come across sits in Numbers, which doesn't yet support chart editing. Once again, this is beta software so you can't judge the app on this; more importantly, Apple says the feature is "coming soon".

Safari, Chrome and Internet Explorer are supported. Firefox is not.

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Additional insights

A scour of the Web has shown a series of additional insights, mainly from the highly respected Electronista:

"The unquestionable highlight of Keynote for iCloud is the way that the web-app handles slide transitions. Just as in a native desktop app, there a wide range of live slide transition effects that can also be controlled and set at your discretion. You can set each slide transition to its own duration and also choose whether the transition will be automatic or manually triggered with a click. To cap things off, the transitions look and work exactly the same way as they do in a native desktop application. You can preview the slide deck and make further fine adjustments as necessary. And, like Pages for iCloud, it is compatible with MS Office, while files can be exported in Office formats as well."

"Pages for iCloud might be the first web-based word processor that might actually tempt all those users still clinging to their native desktop to actually opt for the web-based app first. It is the most fully realized vision for a web app that we have seen yet." Electronista.

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Initial conclusion

I'm impressed with iWork for iCloud. Fast and responsive, and accessed through a pleasantly laid out interface, if this is the future of Web apps and Apple's first move into offering a suite of cross-platform cloud-based tools, then I think it's safe to say we're resolutely now in the world of post-PC.

That all your projects are saved to iCloud means you can now work on them using a variety of systems: iPhones, iPads, the iPod touch, Macs and PCs, using software or online. I'm fairly certain Apple will introduce collaborative tools within these apps at a future point -- it already has several key technologies which it could deploy in order to achieve this.

Signing off, I'd like to observe that iWork for iCloud may well be at its most effective when used in conjunction with the brand new, highly secure and extraordinarily capable new notekeeping solution, NoteSuite, which I also recommend you take a look at -- it's way better (and more secure) than Evernote.

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