Can the iPad succeed in business without Office?

Apple's iWork suite for the tablet might not be enough for the workplace -- though other apps aim to fill the gap

In producing a version of its iWork suite of apps for the iPad, Apple is sending a signal: The device won't just be for watching video, playing games and reading books -- although those are sure big reasons why many people will buy one next weekend. By announcing iWork for the iPad during the tablet's unveiling in January, Apple clearly wanted to plant the idea of the iPad as a business and productivity device squarely in the minds of would-be buyers.

One of the questions that keeps coming up as the iPad's April 3 launch nears is whether it will be a good fit for office use. While some analysts have raised questions about security and management issues with corporate or education uses, others have wondered what business and productivity apps might emerge, and which ones could mean success for the nascent tablet.

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If the iPad is to find a niche in the workplace, much will depend on whether its iWork apps are business-oriented and whether any compatibility issues are addressed -- for instance, can the iPad open Microsoft Office docs? Another big question: Will Microsoft produce some variation of Office for the iPad? And what about cloud-based applications like Google Docs or Microsoft's Office Web Apps?

iWork for iPad: Will it be enough?

Apple is clearly pitching iWork as a business and productivity suite for the iPad.

The Mac version of iWork offers most of the core features that a light business user would need from an office suite. It supports styled text, tracks changes and comments for collaborative work, and includes the vast majority of spreadsheet functions built into Excel. iWork '09 also includes support for importing and exporting documents in a variety of formats, including all recent versions of Office, and others like PDF and QuickTime movies.

While iWork on the Mac can deliver all this interpretability, it's by no means certain that iWork on the iPad can do the same. In fact, perusing the iWork-related features pages on Apple's iPad site raises doubts that iWork for iPad will measure up to the suite's Mac-based sibling.

The page for Keynote (Apple's take on PowerPoint) allows users to import PowerPoint and Keynote files and create new presentations on the iPad. When it comes to sharing files, this page lists only the ability to export presentations as Keynote for Mac files or as PDFs. The implication: You can import (and presumably edit as well as view) PowerPoint presentations, but you may not be able to save to that format without using Keynote on a computer.

The page for Numbers contains similar language, indicating that Numbers for iPad can import both Numbers for Mac and Excel spreadsheets but can only export data as Numbers files or PDFs. Working with Numbers is considerably different from working with Excel. Because of the big differences between the layout and presentation of data, this may actually be a good thing: It'll be easier to see what the exported data will look like. See my previous reviews of iWork '09 and iWork '08 for details.

Pages, Apple's word processing program, seems to fare better than the other two iWork apps on the iPad and is the only one that Apple is describing as capable not only of importing Word documents, but also exporting documents as Word files (in addition to Pages for Mac files and PDFs). That makes a certain amount of sense: Word-processing documents of any stripe mostly stick to styled text and images, not things like tables, formulas and animations.

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