Apple Pages and its shortcomings

I recently finished writing a paper (will add link once it’s published—cross your fingers!). I would have used LaTeX, but under certain circumstances, one must revert to good ol’ .doc format. Now, MS Office on the Mac is a Mess (with a capital M)—your choices are Office ’04, which runs on Rosetta and is therefore dreadfully slow, or Office ’08, which is—in short—a giant pile of garbage. So to write this paper, I went with the Pages app from Apple iWork.

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Pages, on the whole, is a fine piece of software. There’s lots of little touches that make it stand out from MS Word, as well as Google Docs. For one, it’s very snappy. My paper is loaded almost instantly, where Word takes several seconds. Word even takes several seconds to scroll past an image! (Ugh.) And Pages plays well with Spaces. If you’re a Spaces user, this advantage cannot be overstated—Word ’04 was already painfully clumsy with its Spaces compatibility, and ’08 only turns up the pain to 11.

The track changes interface is fantastic, a million times better than Word’s. Not only does it look much cleaner (with comments and change bubbles outside of the page, instead of on it, messing with your layout), but it sports a very clever feature that highlights changes and comments that fall within a selection — or even better, you can make it hide all change bubbles except those within a selection. For pages that have many small changes, that’s a real blessing, as it allows you to focus on exactly the changes you are working on. (As a side note, Pages and MS Word play nice with each other with respect to track changes.)

The one ludicrous, awful, very 1990 thing about Pages is that it doesn’t have an auto-save feature, something that Word got around what, 1997? I realised this the hard way when I lost 5h of work as my Mac froze. (Shimo, the usually excellent VPN client, appears to have been the culprit, btw.) As I rebooted, I searched in vain for a “recover changes” button, a hidden swap file somewhere, anything. Nada. Pages could only show me the last saved version of my work. I still can’t believe that, 3 revisions in, Pages still lacks any form of auto-save or document recovery feature.

Anyway, since I wanted to keep using Pages, a quick Google search turned up WorkSaver, a nifty little donationware auto-save tool for all of Apple iWork. Users of any iWork app—do download this and set it to start at login! Hasn’t saved my ass yet, but I’m sure it will. Oh and the homepage and app icon are both super-cute!

Endnote X2 is another mess of an app, but a necessary evil in the world of academic word processing. Pages ’09 boasts Endnote integration, and it is relatively ok but generally very clumsy. First, it will only work if Endnote has a default library to open at login, it will only work with that one library, and it will only allow you to use Endnote bibliography styles that are marked as favourites within Endnote. And second, when you click “insert citation” in Pages, you get a window asking you what citation you want. This window looks exactly like any other OSX search window: a table with a search box above it. In every other app, the table would have been populated with all your references, and those that didn’t match your search criteria would have been trimmed as you typed your query. Not so in this case: when you start, the search result table is blank. As you type, nothing happens. You have to enter a complete search query, hit Enter, and only then will the table be populated with search results. This inconsistent behaviour had me going crazy for about an hour, thinking that Pages couldn’t find my Endnote library. It was one of those times when you wish that software was something physical that you could toss across the room, out the window, or smash to pieces with a hammer.

In the end, I still prefer Pages over Word, but it’s clear that Apple’s iWork team have their work cut out for them. On top of all the shortcomings of Pages, the .pages file format is still evolving and there’s virtually no chance that other software makers will support it. I’m puzzled and disappointed that Apple chose to invent some new format rather than use the open standard .odt format, which Pages can’t even import/export. Unless Apple gets serious with compatibility, it’s clear that iWork will remain isolated from the rest of the “productivity” software that is out there. Nevertheless, if you are writing for yourself and just yourself, or if you foresee only a single export to .doc or .pdf format, it’s a far better choice than the alternatives.

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