Apple sees chance to compete with Office on the Web

Apple tries another Internet angle -- Web-based productivity apps -- after iWork.com bust

Almost as an afterthought, Apple on Monday announced it was working on browser-based versions of its iWork productivity applications, a move one analyst said challenged Microsoft's Office behemoth.

For a few minutes during Monday's keynote of Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference, Roger Rosner, who heads iWork development, spun through a quick demonstration of iWork for iCloud, a second attempt by Apple to move its Pages word processor, Numbers spreadsheet and Keynote presentation maker into the Internet age.

That first attempt, dubbed iWork.com, ended miserably last July, more than three years after its launch, when Apple pulled the plug. iWork.com was intended to complement the locally installed suite by the same name, but offered no Web-based document creation or editing, and instead made do with document viewing, downloading and commenting.

iWork for iCloud, on the other hand, is to be a full-featured trio of applications that run in a browser on either OS X or Windows, and allow document creation and editing on all of a user's devices. They are, essentially, Pages, Numbers and Keynote ported to the Web.

Those apps support just three browsers in the beta available as of Monday to iOS and OS X developers: Apple's own Safari, Google's Chrome and Microsoft's Internet Explorer (IE). Mozilla's Firefox or Opera Software's Opera are not supported.

But the fact that it runs on IE at all -- or Chrome for that matter -- marks the first time Apple has offered iWork of any kind on Windows. That was also apparent when Rosner proclaimed that iWork for iCloud could edit existing Microsoft Office documents created by that suite's Word, Excel and PowerPoint.

"We know we live in a world of Microsoft Office documents," said Rosner, before demonstrating how the in-browser Pages opened Word documents and saved them in that same format.

Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research, noting the cross-platform capabilities of iWork for iCloud, saw Apple's online maneuver as a combination of catch-up and the realization that productivity software now requires an online component to stay competitive.

"This is a recognition that productivity apps have to be online," said Gottheil. Local-only applications, whether iWork on OS X and iOS, or Office on Windows and OS X, isn't enough. "Apple's saying [iWork for iCloud] validates their platforms and keeps them up-to-date."

But most of all, iWork for iCloud meshes with Apple's long-running strategy of trying to tempt consumers and small businesses now in the Windows camp to defect to OS X, iOS or both. "I see this as building a bridge from Windows to the Apple platforms," said Gottheil of the entry into Microsoft's turf, the first such move since Safari for Windows, which launched in 2007 but was unceremoniously dumped last year.

iWork for iCloud won't reach public beta until "later in the year," Rosner said, but he didn't breathe a word about what, if anything, the online apps would cost.

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