updated 09:45 am EST, Mon January 19, 2009
First Look iWork.com
The iWork suite may be good, but it's not the most popular office suite for the Mac; many Mac users are forced to use Microsoft Office to maintain file compatibility with Windows counterparts. To improve iWork's file sharing capabilities, Apple is now beta-testing an online sharing site dubbed iWork.com.
The main idea behind the site is to allow users of Pages, Numbers, or Keynote to post their documents online. As a result, anyone with a browser -- including Windows and Linux users -- can view files, leave comments, and download items as well. Posting a file first requires an Apple account, which you probably already have if you've ever downloaded music from the iTunes Store, or set up a MobileMe account. If not, creating an account is free.
There are two ways to post a file: clicking on the iWork.com icon in a toolbar, or choosing the Share via iWork.com command. After entering your Apple address and password, a dialog box pops up so you can send an e-mail message (using Mail) to inform others that your document is available for viewing.
Within the dialog you can also define whether others will have permission to add comments or download a file. If you allow downloading, you can specify one of several file formats: iWork '08 and '09, Microsoft Office (e.g. Word or Excel) or PDF.
To view a document, other users must receive a browser link via e-mail. No one can edit a document online, so you don't have to worry about total strangers messing things up; a password or other security measure would be nice, however, to ensure that a link can only be opened by the person originally authorized for it.
This inability to edit online is a critical difference between iWork.com and Google Docs. To modify one of the former's documents, someone must download and resubmit. If multiple people grab and edit a file, you'll wind up with several different versions. By not allowing modifications, iWork forces users to leave comments so a single person can decide direction.
In testing, viewing documents through Internet Explorer in Windows Vista displayed an error message, warning that iWork.com only supports Firefox and Safari on the Windows platform. Documents loaded anyway though, so the warning is irrelevant. It's likely that Apple will include official support for Internet Explorer in the final version of the service.
The ability to download in Office or PDF formats ensures that people without iWork can collaborate. As with any file conversion, there will likely be minor incompatibility problems. Any features found in iWork that are unavailable in Office for example, such as Keynote's visual effects, won't appear in a converted file.
During its beta-testing phase, iWork.com is free to use. The service is fine on that basis, but when Apple announces the cost of the final version, it may be debatable as to whether it's worth paying for filesharing instead of true online collaboration. If you want a simple service that allows others to view and receive documents or provide feedback, you might find iWork.com intriguing.