iPad face-off: Microsoft Office vs. Apple iWork vs. Google Apps

iPad office apps, round 10: Microsoft Office and Apple iWork get big upgrades for the iPad's new multitasking capabilities

iPad face-off: Microsoft Office vs. Apple iWork vs. Google Apps
Mark Fugarino (CC BY 2.0)

The other shoe has dropped: Apple recently revised its iWork productivity suite (Pages, Numbers, and Keynote) to take advantage of the split-screen multitasking introduced in iOS 9 for select iPad models. Microsoft had done the same several weeks earlier in its Office 365 productivity suite (Word, Excel, and PowerPoint).

But both Office and iWork are about much more than split-screen multitasking. Apple also revised iWork for OS X and for iCloud (its Web version), deepening the suite across all three platforms. Microsoft likewise recently released Office 2016 for Windows and now has its Office suite available across Windows, OS X, iOS, and Android, as well as on the Web (via Office Online), all sharing the same large core set of capabilities. Microsoft has had a series of updates to Office for iPad over the last several months that have beefed up its capabilities.

Microsoft Office and Apple iWork for iPad in split-screen mode

Both the iWork and Office suites support iOS 9's split-screen multitasking on compatible iPads. You can now move between two running apps, such as to copy information from one to the other or to get or check data in one that you might need when working in the other.

Both companies treat their mobile apps as siblings to their desktop apps, and it shows. As a result, InfoWorld is applying the same evaluative criteria to the mobile versions of office productivity tools as it does to the desktop versions. They're now all simply office apps. The scorecards here reflect that change.

What about Google Apps? Google pioneered the collaborative platform, using Web apps to break down the computer-based silos in productivity suites. For several years Google has offered mobile apps to extend those capabilities beyond the desktop browser. But Google has done very little with its Google Apps suite (Docs, Sheets, and Slides) for some time.

So far, Google has not added support for the new split-screen multitasking in iOS 9. Now that iWork and Office are at rough parity across their respective set of supported platforms, Google Apps' stagnancy is much more apparent. It supports many fewer capabilities than either iWork or Office and is frankly not a great choice for business use.

The core capabilities compared

Apple, Microsoft, and Google all consider their productivity suites to be more than a collection of apps. Instead, the three companies see them as services that work across computers, mobile devices, and the Web, so users can use whichever client is at hand to access their centrally stored documents, as well as share those documents with other people for collaboration.

Office for iPad is included with an Office 365 subscription, though the apps tend to go overboard in asking you to sign in -- it's much too often. Nonsubscribers can use a subset of Office's editing capabilities for free. iWork for iPad is free for iPad owners. Google Apps is free if you have a Google account, though there is a paid version for enterprise and government use that adds Exchange-like administration capabilities.

File handling. Naturally, Office for iPad natively supports the Office file formats, and it does an excellent job of maintaining file compatibility as documents are moved among its desktop and mobile apps.

iWork has its own file formats, but it does a very good job of importing and exporting the standard Office formats as well. The October 2015 update to iWork reinstates read/write support for older iWork file formats, whose exclusion in both iOS and OS X a year ago deservedly caused an uproar among users.

In both Office and iWork, font differences are the biggest culprits in unwanted reflow and problematic display as documents move from one platform to another.

Google Apps also uses its own file formats, but it can import and export native Office files. Google Apps can work directly on native Office documents, but doing so dramatically reduces the editing and formatting capabilities for these documents, so you need to convert your documents first to Google's formats, then export them when done for non-Google users. Google's conversion between its formats and Office's formats is less faithful than iWork's conversion, especially around layout, but it's adequate for basic documents. Advantage: Office and iWork (tie).

Office, iWork, and Apps can export files to PDFs, but only iWork can export text documents to the ePub format and spreadsheets to CSV. The internal code in Apple's ePub export, however, is very messy and littered with local overrides that inhibit further editing or proper TOC generation; it's not up to snuff for publishing documents for use in iBooks or other e-bookstores, but it's fine for distributing documents for co-workers to read in iBooks or similar e-readers. Advantage: iWork.

Apple iWork for iPad export

The Pages and Numbers apps in the iWork suite offer more export formats than Microsoft Office and Google Apps do, adding ePub for text files and CSV for spreadsheets.

Both Office and iWork can print to AirPrint-compatible printers, though the control for doing so in Office is not in iOS's standard Share menu (which Office doesn't use) but in the File menu. Google Apps supports both AirPrint and Google's own Cloud Print protocol, but printing is not intuitive: You have to preview a document (using the More menu) to get the Print option.

Office does not support iOS's Open In facility, so you can't directly send a document from Word, Excel, or PowerPoint into a compatible app on your iPad, as you can with iWork and Apps. If you want to open a document in another app, you have to store the files in a location that the other app can access, then directly open the documents from that other app. Apps uses the same circuitous path to send a document to another app as it does for printing: doing a print preview first, which is completely unintuitive. Advantage: iWork.

Office and Apps let you make a copy of your document while it is open (use the File menu in Office, the More menu's Share & Export option in Apps), similar to the Save As option computers have had since practically Day 1. iWork does not; you must duplicate the file in the document viewer before you open it if you want to save your changes as a copy. Advantage: Office and Apps.

All three suites autosave their documents while you work on them, though Office lets you turn off autosave when working in a document if you desire.

iWork lets you apply a password to individual files, which neither Apps nor Office do. Advantage: iWork.

But Office lets you revert a document to the last version (meaning its state when you last opened it), which neither iWork nor Apps does. Advantage: Office.

Cloud capabilities. The three office suites assume the use of cloud storage, particularly Apple's iCloud Drive for iWork, Microsoft's OneDrive for Office, and Google Drive for Apps. All three suites present documents stored on their respective services in their default document views, with the ability to create folders and move documents among them.

Both Office and iWork support iOS's cloud plug-in architecture, in which you can open and save files to other cloud services, in what Apple calls Locations. This OS-level feature is a bit clumsy to open (you click More to access it in Office, and -- not so intuitively -- tap + in iWork) and navigate. Box, Google Drive, iCloud Drive, and OneDrive all support Locations, but Dropbox supports it only for saving files, not opening them. That makes using Dropbox with iWork difficult.

Microsoft Office for iPad cloud support

Both iWork and Office use iOS's Locations feature to access files stored on the Box, Google Drive, iCloud Drive, and OneDrive cloud services; Dropbox is only partially supported by Locations, but Office (Word is shown here) directly supports Dropbox for opening and saving.

By contrast, Office directly supports Dropbox, so you can easily open and save files without going through the Locations feature. Office also directly supports corporate SharePoint repositories via Office 365. By contrast, Google Apps supports only local files and Google Drive. Advantage: Office.

iCloud Drive is a sync-and-store service, so it keeps a local copy on each device after iCloud syncs, so you can access at least recent documents even without an Internet connection. Both OneDrive and Google Drive are traditional sync-as-needed services, so you need a live Internet connection to open any document that you did not explicitly store on your iPad. That makes the iWork suite more usable while traveling on airplanes and other typically disconnected (or expensively connected) environments. Advantage: iWork.

Document sharing. All three suites support document sharing: You create a hyperlink to the document for viewing or for editing (your choice). In all three cases, editing requires that the recipient have the appropriate account (iCloud for iWork, Office 365 for Office, or Google Drive for Apps). In the case of Office, editing links are permitted only if enabled by your Office 365 administrator, but you can also share documents directly with other corporate users from the Office apps.

iWork uses the standard iOS sharing tool, whereas Office and Apps employ their own tools. After you create a link, Office closes the sharing tool, which makes you think it canceled out. What actually happened? Office copied the link to the Clipboard and closed the tool, but it doesn't let you know that. iWork and Apps simply present the link for you to copy yourself.

iWork also helpfully adds an icon to the top of the screen for a shared document, as well as in the document viewer, reminding you it is currently shared; Office and Apps do not give you any such easy reminder. Advantage: iWork.

iWork lets you assign a password to a file shared for editing, and you can unshare the link from within iWork. When working with personal files (not stored on your corporate OneDrive for Business or SharePoint repository), Office doesn't let you assign a password to a shared file for editing, and it doesn't let you disable that sharing, either in the Office apps or in the OneDrive app. However, you can manage individuals' access to corporate documents shared directly with other corporate users from within the Office apps.

Apple iWork document sharing

iWork's document sharing lets you set passwords on shared file links, as well as choose between view-only and editing privileges. Office and Google Drive don't offer password options, but they let you share directly to specific users, unlike iWork.

iWork doesn't have this concept of personal versus corporate use. Apps does not support passwords for shared editing links, but like Office it offers a direct-sharing capability to individual users. In an enterprise version of Google Apps, sharing would work the same way as direct sharing does in a corporate Office 365 environment. Advantage: Office and Apps (tie).

InfoWorld Scorecard
Word processing (20%)
Spreadsheets (20%)
Presentations (20%)
Usability (15%)
Interoperability (15%)
Collaboration (10%)
Overall Score (100%)
Apple iWork for iOS 9 8 9 8 8 7 8.3
Google Apps for iOS 6 6 6 6 6 9 6.3
Microsoft Office for iPad 9 8 8 8 8 9 8.3
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