Paging through Pages

Highlights

For bottom line readers too busy to enjoy the copy, Pages is a surprisingly good word processor. I never expected an app to work this well on the iPad’s initial release. The iPad sports:

  • An efficient and effective interface
  • Rich and robust word processing features
  • Incredible stability
  • Automatic document save
  • A number of backup options
  • The only style sheet capabilities in an iPad word processor

That being said however:

  • The style sheets require Pages Macintosh to function like real style sheets
  • Word .doc files lose all styles information
  • Now that I mention it, they lose all the reference features as well
  • Syncing files is more awkward than fumbling in the dark with your first love, and nowhere near as satisfying

In addition, I digress and then digress from digression into epiphanies, Apple evangelicalism, Platonic theory and the digital compression required for time travel. I even mention Derrida in a footnote. This alone should be enough to demonstrate that iPads don't diminish mental acuity (President Obama), people do that perfectly well on their own.

I don’t have any cute review icons yet, but this is without question one of the best iPad apps around.

Now for the review:

In my opinion, Apple is shooting the iPad in the foot with their cutesy “on the go” ads. You know, the iPad on the Moped which cuts to “Oh, look it has books. And you can turn it upside down and it won’t spill.”

To Harley riders and Windows users this ad says, “Girl toy.” If Apple studied beer ads, they would know that iPad ads should feature guys finishing their days on the construction site, and crowds into a bar where the hero whips out his iPad, texts the buxom blonde at the end of the bar, who sees his iPad, says, “Ooh, it’s so much bigger than a Blueberry.” Then the camera is filled with foam and bubbles because we know what’s going to happen next.

If that’s too risque for Apple (who lately seems downright prudish), they need to show the Windows nerd hacking away on his iPad and shouting, “This is a real computer.” Then the buxom blonde will lean over his shoulder and say…, well you can guess how the scenario ends. The bottom line is, Apple needs to quit thinking of itself as the computer for the rest of us, and think of itself as the computer for Joe Sixpack and geeks who want the women to see them as Joe Sixpack. And that means they need to stress that the iPad is a real computer, for real men and real mean wannabes who want power between their fingers.

The proof that Apple has delivered a real computer is iWorks, a functioning (note, I didn’t say “fully functioning”) Office knockoff that provides word processing, spread sheeting and presentation management. The catch is, it’s iWorks will never really capture the imagination of professionals because it isn’t and never will be Microsoft Office. Even the desktop version of iWorks is light years behind the Office suite. It’s only to be expected; Office has a two decade feature development advantage.

So should you use Pages or a word processor that works directly with Word files? For Apple purists, who use iWorks because, well, it’s Apple, this is a meaningless question. For those of us who worked with Word from the beginning, because it beat the other Apple native MacWrite hands down, this is a critical question. For Windows users, who couldn’t use Pages if they wanted to because Apple doesn’t have an iWork for Windows, it gets even stickier.

Apple loves to promote Pages as an iPad application for Windows users because it opens and saves files in Word format. This is true, but only by the broadest possible definition of truth–enough to get you around the truth in advertising laws but not true enough to make Windows users fall in love with Apple and never use a PC product again.

To be honest, we all know that using an Apple product is a supposed to lead to a conversion experience. We are expected to fall down from our Windows horses on the road to PC Damascus and become blinded by the brilliant light for the rest of us.

For me, that really happened. I spent many a sleepless night writing batch files for menus and struggling to configure Windows 1.0 when my brother-in-law looked over my shoulder one day and said, “Hey, that looks like a Mac.”

Carol, who thought we’d spent enough on computers, cringed. We’d already gone into debt buying our XT machine with 640K RAM and 20 MB hard drive. You see, I only bought a PC, after years of resisting the urge to digitize my life, because that same brother-in-law convinced us to buy his used Wang word processor. The very same Wang that crashed after I’d retyped all my articles and saved them to floppy drives. Incidentally, we also had to pay a bundle to convert the files to incompatible PC floppies.

Like the sixteen-year-old Carol says I really am, I begged and whined and pleaded with her relentlessly to at least look at a Mac. (Okay, I was thirty at the time so sixteen wasn’t that much of a stretch for me.) We drove to the licensed Apple dealer, and within an hour we were three thousand dollars deeper in debt, I had a MacPlus and a new 20MB hard drive (because Macs couldn’t use my PC hard drive) and she went to bed with a migraine that lasted a week.

The good news is, we paid the entire loan off five years later, after I put us even deeper in debt to buy a Mac IIci with 8MB ram and a 100MB hard drive. We didn’t pay that off until after I’d upgraded to a 66GhZ Power PC and then a 200GhZ StarMax Mac clone, not to mention my first of six PowerBooks/MacBook Pros, which we finally paid off last year just in time to buy my 17 inch MacBook Pro, which I now pretty much use exclusively to back up files from my iPad and to view Flash enabled web sites that Apple doesn’t want to corrupt my iPad.

So, yes, I understand the Mac epiphany (to be honest, I bought several PCs too because clients demanded them, but not as many, and never as expensive).

This is merely a winding and circuitous path to my real point which is: Windows users who have the iPad conversion experience and then try to work with their Word files in Pages will quickly lapse back to a confused agnosticism. This is because using Pages with extensively formatted, references and bookmarked Word files in Pages is like turning over the keys to your Mercedes to your cousin who never made it out of second grade.

With that caveat, let me say that, for what it is, Pages is first rate. You just have to remember that first rate on an iPad may not be first rate for technical and professional writers who have heavy demands on their word processing features.

Pages is a surprisingly good word processor

When I use iPad Pages I have to remember that this is a first launch app for a brand new machine with an extremely low memory overhead. By that standard Pages performs better than I expected, and I use it almost every day.

When I think back to comparable app launches, mainly Word, Word for Mac, MacWrite, and iWorks Pages for the Macintosh, iPad Pages shines brighter than all of them. While it pales in comparison to the features of a mature, professionally oriented Word, it competes head to head in many respects to the basic features you expect from a basic word processing program.

Formatting is elegant, it’s easy to navigate through long documents, it handles graphics more easily than Word (while lacking a few graphic management features), and–with the exception of apostrophes, quotations and code typing–the onscreen keyboard is easy to work with.

Pages also has strong search and replace features, the ability to create and format tables. The “replace” half of the search feature is largely undocumented (I found it in a Kendall Reader download), but perhaps that’s in the spirit of iPad games, where the fun is (supposed to be) guessing all the rules.

Search and replace works well once you know where to find it

The iPad spell check works more intuitively. Pages actually corrects words as you type, which is convenient most of the time. When the spellcheck suggests the wrong spelling, you can tap on the word you typed with your finger and Pages won’t make the correction.

Spell as you type

Traditional spellcheck

Automatic Save

Apple finally understands that people shouldn’t have to click a “save” button to finalize the changes to documents. I think it goes without saying that professionals should be embarrassed to lose work because they didn’t save. They also know to work from copies of documents before they make radical changes.

Most casual users lose their work because they forget to save. It’s frustrating. When I taught visual design at Austin Community College, this was the most common mistake made by students in introductory classes. It’s painful to work on something for a hour and lose it all because you didn’t save.

iPad Pages works like a database. If you make a change it’s saved. If you want it back, you can undo your change before you save. I didn’t think I would like this approach, but I find that I do. One reason is because people love to interrupt while I’m working, and I don’t want the iPad to shut down because someone distracted me, and flush my work. And even though Pages has never crashed on me (which I’ll discuss a few paragraphs down), it’s nice to know my work is intact should that happen.

The Pages interface makes it easy to return to a smaller screen

Granted the iPad’s 1028 x 782 screen is twice the resolution of the 640 x 480 monitors I used to kill my eyes on, but many of us have become used to much bigger screen dimensions. Apple anticipated this by creating a collapsing formatting pane. At any time, you can hide all of the formatting options and type on a full screen. The formatting options reappear with a finger tap.

I hate screen clutter, so I love this feature. Unfortunately, once the keyboard dock is connected, you can hide the formatting options, but the instant you insert the carat to start typing, it opens right back up. So, if you want to use the keyboard, you can kiss that uncluttered white space goodbye.

Pages’ collapsible tool bar

The first Pages release was a little more clumsy. The formatting options only appeared when the iPad was rotated into Portrait orientation. It took about a month for developers to realize how irritating it could be to have to stop typing and rotate the device to access formatting options. Perhaps developers assumed people using Pages would buy the keyboard dock, which locks the iPad into Portrait position.

Pages is the most stable word processing program I’ve worked with

I’ve spent hours with Pages, working with comic book manuscripts, research documents and novel-length files. Since I first opened a document in Pages the day Apple released the iPad, the app hasn’t crashed once. When has that ever happened?

It hasn’t happened with any of the third party apps. They crash all the time. And the same goes for the other text editing programs I’ve tested (with the possible exception of DocsToGo, which I haven’t had long enough to tell).

Several back up options

On the off chance Pages should crash, and, even worse, trash your file, the iPad actually has a separate documents folder where you can save a copy in Word, Pages or PDF format. If styles are important, you should save as a Pages document, which we’ll discuss at greater length further down.

Since the iPad probably hasn’t been out long enough to experience crashes in the solid state drive, it’s too early to tell how reliable they are. Even so, Page provides you with a couple of options for backup to another location without having to go through the irritating iTunes sync. The easiest backup option is to email the file to yourself, which you can do from inside pages. You can also copy your file to the iWorks mobile site.

Be warned, however, copying to the iWorks site can be painfully long for documents with graphics on every page. A twenty page document with ten or more graphics can take as long as six minutes depending on the speed of your wireless connection. And that time is real down time. You can’t leave Pages and read an eBook or play solitaire.

That’s why you still need your iPhone.

Pages supports stylesheets

This is the main reason why I’m moving to Pages. None of the apps currently out there support styles. Even worse, if you move your document to the iPad to edit, the style information is stripped out by the time you port it back to your desktop.

If you don’t use styles, you probably won’t care. But anyone who works for clients who want to make global style changes to documents will understand the importance of styles. If you need styles, you need Pages.

This, however, brings us to that inevitable iPad moment when I have to say, “but there’s a catch….” When it comes to Pages styles, Windows and Word users will finally understand the meaning of Catch 22.

If you need to manage styles, you must install iWorks on your desktop

You can open Word files (and PDF files) in Pages. And you can export your documents as Word and PDF files. However, by Word files, we mean .doc files, and dedicated Word users know Word’s current default file format is .docx. Pages on the Mac handles .docx files. iPad Pages doesn’t.

The news gets worse. Do you remember the Michael Crichton novel “Timeline?” (If you watched the movie, it will still count). Whenever the heroes time travelled, their original selves died and digital copies replaced them. Not perfect digital copies either, more like JPEG versions. That’s what Pages does to Word files. It returns them as crippled copies with all style data lost. In fact, the minute you open a .doc file in iPad pages, all style information is lost.

On the other hand, can you really claim to manage that which you can’t create?

This may sound like an overly philosophical question, but the truth is, the iPad Pages styles feature more closely resembles the styles you might encounter in Plato’s allegory of the Cave. You know, it looks good until you get closer to the real thing, and then you realize how naive you’ve been. Yes, iPad Pages recognizes styles, but it doesn’t create them. You’re stuck with the built in styles Apple supplies and the formatting Apple developers thought those styles should have.

If you want your “body” style to be Times Roman 14, forget it. “Body” style is Helvetica 12. And if you format a paragraph Times 14, and apply the body style, it reverts to Helvetica 12. I will confess that type designers insist Helvetica 12 is a beautiful, readable typeface, and they would be right. But you should ask them how often they use Helvetica 12 in their designs.

Can you imagine someone at Knopf press working with iPad Pages? The book’s colophon would read, “Set in Helvetica typeface because Apple knows more than we do.” I suspect the Knopf typesetters would commit mass suicide first. No, they would be stuck with their Macs (assuming that Knopf press uses Macs, but anyone that concerned about the look of their type would have to use Macs).

How do you create style sheets for your Pages documents? Why, you create the document in Pages for Macintosh first. This means you have to download the entire iWorks package for $100 even if you only want to use Pages stylesheet creation features. Or, you would have to treat a friend with Pages for Macintosh to a most excellent dinner in exchange for a few minutes on their Mac to create template documents for your iPad.

That being said, if a friend wanted to buy me dinner in exchange for a couple of hours with my Mac to use Pages, I would accept, but the cost of a 12 course dinner with wine at La Reve in San Antonio would be four time the cost of iWorks.

Now that I’ve said all this. None of the other word processing programs even attempt to implement styles. So if Word is the only Office app you really use, Pages is a great buy whether you use Windows or Macintosh. You may not understand why I even groused so much, but writers who live by styles will understand why it’s such a big concern.

Footnotes? Forget those

If your Word document contains footnotes, indexing, table of contents, bookmarks or annotations, you can forget about those as well. You can have endnotes, but the links connecting them will be stripped away. With Pages, you do reference features the old fashioned way, just like you did on your IBM Selectric back in college. Assuming you’re old enough to remember what a typewriter is.

Sleek on the typing end, sluggish on the syncing end

Consider this scenario. You’ve typed your masterpiece on Pages. Now you need to get it back to your desktop to apply styles. What are your options? Even if you’ve loved iPad pages until now, which in spite of everything, you probably will, this will be the moment in your marriage when you see your new digital bride with teeth in the jar, wig on the closet door and prosthetic leg on the floor next to the bed.

You would think, since the iPad is a wireless device, that you could simply send the file over your wireless network to your desktop machine. Sadly, Apple took the wireless out of Pages syncing. You could send your file wirelessly to the iWorks site, then sign in from your desktop and download wirelessly. But, given how long it takes to send graphics intensive files to iWorks, downloading them would be a double time suck.

Apple’s preferred solution is to pull out your USB cable, hook your iPad manually to your desktop machine, launch iTunes, and then find the “apps” tab, scroll down the window until your find Pages at the very bottom and then drag the files back and forth between your iPad and desktop.

Oh, but wait. You remember that backup folder I told you about? First you have to export your Pages files to the back up folder, and that copy of the file will be the one you transfer to your desktop. So, getting back to Plato, you copy a copy of your file (the technical term would be the simulacrum) to your home computer in some sort of digital third man transaction and then you modify the simulacrum of the simulacrum (would that be simulacrum2 or simulacrum 2.0?), and begin the whole process to port it back to the iPad.

Or you could email it to yourself and download the attachment. You’re still dealing with an intermediary copy, but it’s a lot easier.

This whole Rube Goldberg iTunes sync wouldn’t be so aggravating if every other third party word processing program on the iPad didn’t already simply connect to your home computer wirelessly for direct file transfer. No compound simulacra to haunt cyberspace. How is it that a cornfed programmer in Kansas can make the iPad do what Apple can’t?

If you’re thinking, this is all hypothetical. Why would you need to send a file back to your home computer? Didn’t Steve Jobs tell the world the iPad will replace computers entirely? My answer would be: Because you want to print your file. That’s right. You can’t print from your iPad, and even if you buy an app that says you can (which, as of this writing, it won’t nine times out of ten), that app won’t print Pages documents.

No word count feature

For most users this is a non issue, and it’s hardly a deal breaker. But I do need word count, and right now I have to compose every thing with a minimum or maximum word count (which many free lance writers understand) and then revise the text in DocsToGo, then copy and paste the clean text into a styled template I created with Pages for Macintosh.

It’s not a deal breaker, but it’s high on my list of requests for Pages 2.0.

In Summary

iUse iPad Pages for everything and I love it. But I had to spring an extra hundred for iWorks to really use the Pages styles features.

If styles are an essential element of your word processing, Pages is a superb app. If you’re a Mac user and you have iWorks on you Mac. If you’re a Windows user, or a professional reference writer, you will only want to use Pages for day to day word processing and drafts and leave your stylized documents untouched on your PC.

Pages is the one app I would have to say, unequivocally, that you need on your iPad, and at $10 it’s a great buy. For some users it will be a lifesaver, even as it grows through those awkward years. For others, it will still be a good app for routine word processing. Other iPad word processors do transfer files better. I correct that, they all do. Much better. Astronomically better. But those apps don’t integrate as well with the iPad and they just don’t have Pages’ power and grace.

*I find it tempting, no, I can’t resist the temptation to point out that Plato mistrusted simulacra because they suffered generation loss (they could never be as good as the original). Derrida, who loved to tease Plato because about his obsession with simulacra, especially in light of the digital age when copies of copies were accepted to be identical to the original in every way (minus a superfluous byte or two perhaps).
This observation demonstrates how silly it is to discuss computer simulacra, except to point out that it’s just plain dumb to have to make a copy of your Pages file simply to copy that copy to your home computer..

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About Phillip T Stephens

Phillip T. Stephens disappeared into the Bermuda Triangle twenty years before he was born, creating a time travel paradox so confusing it remains unspoken between physicists and sci-fi writers to this day. Follow @stephens_pt
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