Much discussion around the Mac web about what Chairman Jobs might be planning to release at a big shindig in San Francisco next week. Some of it’s been picked up by the mainstream press, with the Telegraph ludicrously reporting a new Mac costing £260. While this might, possibly, turn out to be the case, such an eventuality wouldn’t alter the fact that the story as and when published was nothing more than a badly-edited regurgitation of rabid fanboy musings of distinctly dubious authority from sources of at best questionable legitimacy and at worst outright fabrication. Bizarrely, the blogs are guilty of better journalism than the Telegraph, here. Tsk, tsk.
But anyway, fascinating as the concept of a genuinely cheap Mac may be, in some ways I’m more interested in the possibility of Apple-written office software. Keynote appeared a couple of years ago and has proven to be a limited but distinctly elegant replacement for the astonishingly mediocre PowerPoint. AppleWorks, however, has fallen a long way from the glory days of its earlier ClarisWorks incarnation of a dozen years ago, having only barely survived a dreadful migration to OS X. It’s basically not been touched since – maintenance updates only in, what, four years? Keynote has also been neglected, and then there’s the reported presence at Apple of the folks behind the charmingly elegant GoBe Productive suite for the failed BeOS platform. All fuel to the rumour mill, of course.
And the rumour mill is dutifully reporting, as they have for at least two years now, Apple will next week release a full-on office suite in competition with Microsoft Office. Or something like that – John Gruber, as ever, has one of the saner round-ups of the story. Personally, I think they’re a bit off, in a way that’s so blindingly obvious I can’t quite believe nobody’s picked up on it. But that appears to be the case, so I shall stick my neck out and speculate. Hey, this is a blog, I’m allowed. It’s not like I’m a journalist.
It’s rumoured that Keynote will be joined by a word-processing application called either Document or Pages. The former name is a throwback to the OpenDoc days and presents semantic problems (‘Would you like to save this Document document?’); the latter seems to me more likely. What I raise an eyebrow at is the phrase ‘word processing.’ Everybody’s very caught-up on this, quite reasonably banging on about how dreadful Word is, but I think they’re missing the real gap in the market. Which is that, on the Mac – the home of desktop publishing, no less – the only DTP applications I can think of are Adobe InDesign and Quark XPress. For page layout and design, Word is an awful mess with unusable tools and laughably amateurish templates. Other word processors like Nisus Express and Mellel are more elegant, but still basically clumsy compared to proper frame-based layout apps. More significantly, they’re focussed on the writing task, not on the preparation of good-looking output. And people genuinely want to do this sort of thing – heck, on Windows they actually use Microsoft Publisher, which may be just about the least-elegant mainstream software in existence but (a.) it works, (b.) it’s cheap and (c.) it’s just about simple enough to do what you want with it. There is, to my knowledge, no Mac equivalent, even with Publisher’s wince-inducingly horrid default template designs.
Indeed, the closest we have is still AppleWorks, which inherits the delightfully intuitive framed editing of ClarisWorks – then screws it up by being generally rubbish. There’s a real gap in the market here, for something that allows non-professionals to turn out beautiful printed documents. That gives them stylish and tasteful starting templates (see Keynote – for comparison, cf. Publisher, PowerPoint, Word, et al), makes writing text content straightforward, and allows trivially simple insertion of images from iPhoto.
If Pages really does exist, this is what I expect it to be. I do not expect long document tools, networked revision control, nor automatic bibliography generation. Much as I’d love an alternative to Word for all of that, I just can’t see it happening – mostly because I think it’s solving the wrong problem for the majority of iMac owners out there. The rumour is of ‘iWork,’ which by nominative implication would be a consumer-level package. We’re not talking ‘Layout Studio Pro’ here.
There’s an additional reason, too. By sticking to the low-end, Apple avoids a head-on confrontation with Microsoft Office. Indeed, all they’re really doing in terms of product portfolio is giving AppleWorks the long-overdue whack-over-the-noggin and rolling out something less rubbish in its stead. But nevertheless, if Pages is well-architected it should give Apple the base on which they could, theoretically, build a world-class word processor. Rather quickly. Should any such requirement ever appear. To fit alongside DVD Studio Pro, Final Cut Pro, and Logic Pro. Strategically, that has to be a good move, since at the moment Microsoft effectively holds the entire Mac market by a thread called ‘Office.’
So: my rampant speculation is that, next week, Apple will launch a consumer-level DTP app featuring good text processing, Word file import, and excellent integration with iPhoto. There’ll be lots of glossily beautiful templates, an elegant table editor that (just like ClarisWorks, cough cough) happens to do basic spreadsheet-like stuff, and a graph-drawing component not entirely dissimilar to Keynote’s. Like iTunes, iPhoto, GarageBand and iMovie, it’ll be bundled with new Macs and available for the rest of us, with Keynote 2.0, as ‘iWork’, for – guess – £50. Blog pundits will be disappointed that it’s a not a full-on Word replacement, but people who actually buy iBooks and iMacs will love it.
End of speculation. Of course, what I should now do is pretend I’m being sued by Apple and see if I can get the Telegraph to publish the above as news.