iWork started with not much focus on its users' needs, but the 2008 version was a major leap forward and began to suggest that Apple could develop a world-class office suite of its own. Then it came out with a minor update a year later and ... that's it, until this year.
In the meantime, the pioneering iTunes media center remains the most cohesive media-library offering on any platform, but it suffers from a mashed-up user interface that struggles to handle all its components nicely. And the iBooks Author publishing tool released in winter 2012 has a maddening combination of cutting-edge capabilities, unnecessary limitations, and awkward user experience that you see to a lesser degree in the iWork suite, iPhoto, Preview, and even iMovie.
Ironically, in iOS, the iWork suite demonstrated early on that the iPad was a serious business tool, and it remains the best mobile office productivity suite on any platform. (I'm not counting the more capable Office 2013 on Windows tablets because it's unusable in a touchscreen environment, making its functional superiority moot.) Keynote in particular is amazingly powerful and easy to use on iOS, as it is on OS X. (Pages and Numbers suffer by comparison on OS X, perhaps because Jobs was a heavy Keynote user.)
Likewise, iMovie is a really good mobile editor on iOS, GarageBand is a really good music editor and mixer on iOS, and iPhoto and iBooks are both pretty good at what they do. Yet other apps such as Reminders, Notes, Remote, and Contacts are mediocre, both on iOS and OS X.
Apple's Achilles heel in the new platform war
There's been a lot of attention paid to the decline of the Windows PC in favor of tablets, as well as the death of the BlackBerry as it ignored the iPhone. The old clients are giving way to the new ones. But it's more complex than that. The new platforms extend well beyond the device and its OS. It's an ecosystem battle involving applications, cloud services, and protocols.
In the Apple world, iTunes, iCloud, and the App Store form the glue for iOS and OS X devices, with a common set of services and content available to all. Protocols like AirPlay and AirPrint extend that ecosystem into a second ring of devices. Apple's big missing piece is the Web, which should be a portal for users of other platforms to enter the Appleverse. iTunes does that a bit for music and videos, and the new iWork for Web may be intended to do that for basic office productivity. But either could be disrupted by Microsoft or Google.
Microsoft's Office 365 is lamer than Apple's iWork for the Web. That's because Office 365 not really a Web editing suite, but rather is a download service for the traditional Office apps (like Adobe's similarly lame Creative Cloud.) The Web apps of Office 365 are much less functional, and until that changes, it's hard to take the Web part of Office Web Apps seriously. But Microsoft is gaining some ground here, and I have no doubt it will continue to improve. Microsoft's Xbox Music and Video also fall behind Apple's iTunes service, and it lacks the kind of addictive peer-to-peer sharing capabilities of AirPlay; its adoption of Miracast in Windows 8 suffers from Miracast's performance and compatibility woes. Microsoft has a strong server platform in Windows Server, Skype, and Exchange, but it's let SharePoint become a complex, single-platform morass.
Google's Drive is even less capable, making a mockery of Google's Web-first pretensions. Google did buy Quickoffice -- whose iOS word processor and spreadsheet editor were better than Apple's Pages and Numbers -- to fill in the gap in its Web app. But then it reworked Quickoffice to be basically a portal to Google Drive, making you use Drive for online documents even though it's barely functional. Although Quickoffice still has good local editing capabilities, you're dissuaded from using them. When it comes to its media component, Google barely registers. And its Chromecast device for video playback lacks the peer-to-peer functionality of Apple's AirPlay, just as its new Android devices suffer from Miracast's disappointing state and older devices from Google and its Android licensees suffer from widely inconsistent, often proprietary protocols.
If Apple has a compelling, high-quality suite of apps across OS X, iOS, and the Web, with some key pieces on Windows and Android, it could easily emerge as the dominant platform in users' personal lives, plus get a big share of the small business market plus a reasonable share of the enterprise, where its iPad and iPhone are leaders. I get that Apple offers the broadest set of apps for its platforms compared to Microsoft and Google, but it's an uneven mix that isn't a good enough base for the future.
As long as Apple can't figure out whom all its apps are for, so they can be "just right," it risks losing the huge opportunity it created for itself with iTunes, the iPhone, and the iPad. Apple's biggest advantage is that Microsoft and Google are also getting this wrong.
This article, "Apps are Apple's Achilles' heel," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Galen Gruman's Smart User blog. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.