Worse than Regression

I greatly enjoyed Stephen Hackett and Federico Viticci's rant against iWork on The Prompt this past week. Stephen Hackett followed up with a blog post making a similar point about the unsettling trend of Apple regressing features whenever it tries to revamp a major software offering. The previous examples given were iMovie 08 and Final Cut Pro X, each of which caused an outcry from users upon release because of their missing features, and each of which Apple slowly improved by adding back lost functionality. Gruber claimed a couple weeks ago that this is just another example of apple valuing "simplicity over functionality."

But I would argue that the iWork redesign is not just another example of this trend, but something much worse.

iMovie '08 and Final Cut Pro X are both, in fact, examples of Apple starting over from scratch in order to reimagine how the app should work. In the case of iMovie, my understanding is that the app was designed to help people make better home videos by allowing them to easily scrub through raw footage and select just the clips they wanted to use in the final product. In the case of Final Cut Pro X, the app was redesigned around the magnetic timeline, which would allow for much more intuitive editing for less experienced users.

You can argue about whether either of these redesigns was actually successful. In my opinion, iMovie 08 was a mess when it first came out, but Final Cut Pro X was actually amazing for a first time user. But what you can't argue is that each was a bold, radical departure from the past that laid a new foundation for the app's future.

iWork has none of that boldness. All it does is clip the wings of the desktop versions so as not to embarrass the iPad's feature set. The radical new paradigm is that you'll be able to the same things on your iPad as you do on your desktop, even if this means ruining the experience you used to have on the desktop.

The reason I find this so depressing is that Apple software designers have a lot of exciting ideas about the unique opportunities of the iPad in their "life" apps. Garageband, iPhoto, and (to a lesser extent) iMovie offer completely different and in many ways superior experiences on the iPad. There's no desire to make them identical to the desktop versions. It's obvious that the tablet offers a different experience. So why, in God's name, should the iWork apps be identical on both platforms?

If you want to offer a radical new version of word processing or spreadsheets or slide decks that's specifically tailored to the iPad experience, make it fucking different from the desktop experience. Don't just make the desktop experience worse! To give just one example, couldn't they at least try to reimagine a way to end the nightmare that is iOS text selection? Couldn't they make interaction with text more intimate, more intuitive, through touch somehow? Apparently not.

Nilay Patel made a great point on the most recent episode of the Vergecast. He was talking about how iOS 7 still doesn't feel like it's been optimized for the iPad, which suggests that even Apple doesn't quite know what the iPad is for. But if they want the iPad to replace most computers, they have to figure that out.

Apple are definitely making great strides with their iLife applications, Garageband being the best example. But there's a difference between creative applications and straightforward work applications. Many more people use their computers for the latter than the former, and Apple have yet to demonstrate that they understand "work" as well as they understand "life".