Review: Apple's iWork '09 gets online sharing, 'evolutionary' updates is Apple's take on Web-based document sharing

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Locating formulas within a Numbers file is also easier with the new Formula List feature. Located in the toolbar, this option displays a pane below the main display that lists every formula in the document, organized by which tables they're in. The list includes the cell containing the formula, the current results and the formula itself. This helps you quickly find and modify formulas, and is probably most helpful when working with one of Apple's templates or a document created by another user.

Perhaps one of the most significant updates to Numbers, however, is its improved charting abilities. The software now allows you to combine different types of charts, such as bar and line graphs, into a single display, which can help track information more easily across a range of data and values.

Even more important, Numbers charts that are inserted into either Pages or Keynote documents are now automatically linked to the original Numbers file. If the Numbers data is updated, a bar will be displayed in the Pages or Keynote document when it is next opened identifying the change and allowing users to update the chart accordingly.

This marks a major step forward for Numbers in general and for iWork as a whole, because it allows data to be used and updated easily and consistently across all three applications -- making the entire suite more efficient and user-friendly. It also encourages users to work with the complete suite rather than just one or two applications.

The process works fairly well, but because the links are between individual files, moving or deleting them (or placing them on a remote file server) can break the link. It's something that users should keep in mind when using the feature or when working with linked iWork documents.

Numbers is still lacking in a couple of features that experienced Excel jockeys will miss. First is support for pivot tables. Numbers approximates the effects of pivot tables with a new table categories feature, which is arguably easier to work with. Table categories allow you to group data from one table and categorize it in another. The categories are based on existing columns in the original table and can be easily expanded or hidden with a disclosure triangle.

The effect is similar to a pivot table and requires much less effort for novice users, and it works well for almost anyone wanting to quickly view related data. However, longtime Excel users may feel the feature doesn't match what they're used to.

A second missing feature is Excel macro support. Although Numbers can easily open and save in Excel formats, it cannot work with macros. If a macro exists in a file that is edited in Numbers and saved, the macro seems to be consistently stripped from the document. And while Numbers can save to Excel formats without any major issues, Numbers files that contain a lot of additional Numbers-specific formatting may require some formatting work if opened in Excel, though the software still does a good job of organizing much of the data from Numbers sheets into a different workbook.

Continuing the general trend toward cloud-based computing, Apple has created, an Internet-based collaborative feature for iWork users. The service, currently free while in beta, allows users to upload documents directly from the iWork applications and share them with others. Shared documents are available through a Web version, which manages to preserve formatting across various browsers -- including the iPhone's mobile version of Safari -- and can be downloaded in iWork, Office or PDF formats for offline viewing and editing.

Unfortunately,'s sharing is essentially read-only. Unlike Google Docs and similar solutions from other providers (including Microsoft's forthcoming offerings), iWork doesn't let multiple users edit documents. In fact, no one can edit documents directly online with the service.

Instead, users can add comments and notes when viewing a document online. Comments function exactly as they do in iWork documents, appearing as little virtual Post-it notes linked to specific pieces of text, cells or other objects and overlaying the document itself.

Notes function more like a chat feature and appear in a sidebar to the right of the actual document, displaying information about the owner/creator and anyone viewing the document (including whether they are online and actively viewing it). The sidebar also includes the option to download an offline copy of the document. While comments allow users to collaborate and offer suggestions or corrections about specific points in a document, notes facilitate more general discussion among participants. Both features work very well for collaboration. is a new feature that allows document sharing. is a new feature that allows document sharing.

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Sharing a document is easy. With a document open in any of the three applications, simply click the button in the toolbar. A dialog box will ask who you want to share the document with, and you can either enter e-mail addresses or contacts from Address Book (contacts will autocomplete much as they do in Mail). An e-mail will be sent to those people using Apple's Mail application -- other e-mail apps aren't supported -- and you can specify the subject of the e-mail as well as a message describing the document.

The online sharing feature allows users to control how others work with shared documents.

The online sharing feature allows users to control how others work with shared documents.

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You can also choose whether users are allowed to download the document or just view it online, and whether users can add comments. You can also designate a name for the document other than the default file name on your computer and which formats are supported: iWork '08, iWork '09, Office or PDF.

Once a document is shared, it is uploaded to the service in the selected formats. Shared users will get an e-mail with a link to the document. Although you need an Apple ID to sign in to the service and share the document, other users aren't required to use one to access it. (The Apple ID used for is the same one used for iTunes purchases.) You can also use a MobileMe account.

By selecting the "Show Shared Documents" item from the Share menu in any of the iWork apps, you can see a list of all your shared documents, delete them if you want and see how much space you're using on the service. For now, users get up to 1GB for free while is in beta. is a solid first step into cloud computing for iWork, and it seems Apple has done a better job with this than with its first foray into the cloud with the problematic MobileMe launch last summer. The new service is reliable and easy to use.

By not allowing users to edit documents online, however, is simply not that useful as a collaborative tool. Users can download documents, make changes, and re-share them, but the re-shared versions will be treated by as separate documents. They will also be tied to the Apple ID of the person who downloaded and edited them.

This really restricts's usefulness for collaboration. There's no direct collaboration on the content of a document built into the service, and if users do download and perform offline editing, version control issues are likely to crop up -- especially with documents created with different accounts and on different computers. The version control issues also extend to the comments and notes features. Users could end up with multiple versions of documents with different content and different discussion elements.

Users can easily track shared documents -- and how much storage space they have left.

Users can easily track shared documents -- and how much storage space they have left.

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Even with these limitations, shows promise. It's better than other Web-based solutions for viewing full formatting within a document, and the discussion features are well done. It also makes sharing documents a one-click process; there's no need to add attachments to e-mails or post documents to a Web site or online storage site. But keep in mind that, as it stands now, is better used for sharing and discussion -- not active collaboration.

Overall impressions

For $79, iWork '09 is a solid suite for newcomers and a worthy upgrade for current users, even if it seems like a largely incremental update. There are a variety of useful additions to all three applications, though Numbers is probably the one with the most changes.

For many users, iWork serves as a viable and cost-effective alternative to Microsoft Office, one that distinguishes itself with ease of use and the visual flair it can add to data, documents and presentations. With a free trial version available, users who have been curious about iWork can take it for a thorough test drive before deciding whether to buy.

Chances are, they'll like what they find.

Ryan Faas is a frequent Computerworld contributor specializing in Mac and multiplatform network issues. You can find more information about him at

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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