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iWork for iCloud Beta Recalls

Remember the unmitigated disaster that was Apple closed the service last year, after three embarrassing years during which never made it out of public beta (see “Apple Finally Puts Out of Its Misery,” 12 March 2012). Apple seems hell-bent on repeating the exercise, with a developer beta of iWork for iCloud starting now, and a public beta scheduled for later this year.

iWork for iCloud is essentially a port of Pages, Numbers, and Keynote to the Web, enabling you to work on your iCloud-stored documents in a Web browser, just as though you were using the appropriate app on a Mac or iOS device. It seems to work, and is an impressive demonstration of what can be done in a Web browser. It remains to be seen if all features are fully supported or if, by editing a document via iCloud, you’ll be losing more advanced aspects of the document, as is still the case when moving between iOS and OS X.

But who would want to use it, and why is Apple wasting time on it?

The obvious use case is someone who has a Mac at home but must use Windows at work, or a college student who wants to use public computers in the library to work on documents instead of carrying (or buying) a MacBook. Obvious, perhaps, but nonsensical — why would Apple want to make it easy for someone to avoid using a Mac or iPad, especially if the experience isn’t as good as either (which seems likely)?

The answer certainly isn’t because of collaboration — the apps in Google Drive get a pass for being fairly feature-weak because of their fabulous collaboration features — since the only way to share a document in iWork for iCloud is as an email attachment. It’s really quite lame and just the latest example of how Apple’s comprehensive lack of awareness as to the importance of collaboration in the modern world drives people to competing services. (And don’t tell me that people who need to collaborate aren’t Apple’s core audience — we darn well are, and are forced to avoid so many Apple services purely because of this blind spot.)

A thought did occur to me, and I have absolutely no evidence to back this up, but what if iWork for iCloud isn’t so much an example of Apple’s prowess in writing Web apps that can mimic desktop apps, but a way of testing out a technology that essentially runs code from iCloud within a JavaScript-based runtime environment? In other words, what if Apple hasn’t written three different Web apps, but is instead somehow running something close to the existing Mac or iOS code in a sort of virtual machine? If so, perhaps we might expect to see an iCloud version of Maps as well, and that could inform all sorts of speculation as to an app-based future for iCloud.

That is of course merely guesswork, but back in the real world, Apple did say that we could expect to see updates to the iWork apps later this year. Since Pages, Numbers, and Keynote haven’t seen significant updates or even much in the way of bug fixes for over four years, some attention there will be welcome.

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