Judging by user and developer reaction, the biggest news out of Apples special media event Aug. 7 was the debut of Numbers, a new spreadsheet application "for the rest of us," as Apple CEO Steve Jobs termed it.
Numbers is a part of Apples iWork 08 $79 software suite, which also includes updated versions of the presentation software Keynote and the word processor/page layout application Pages. The new version of Pages can open Microsoft Word 2007 documents; Mac users of Word currently have to use a beta version of a file converter from Microsoft to open Word 2007 files.
"There was a lot of anticipation for a spreadsheet application" from Apple, said Fred Evans, product manager at computer retailer FirstTech Computer, in Minneapolis. "A lot of people buy Microsoft Office because they need to buy Office, not because they want Office."
Evans said that "overall, the buzz has been good" about iWork 08, and that FirstTech started receiving calls asking about the software suite on the day it was announced.
"Sales have been good" for iWork 08, he said, adding that this compares with moderate sales for previous versions of iWork.
The inclusion of Numbers, he said, could be responsible for the difference. "Theres a lot of interest, especially in Numbers," he said. "People like how it looks, how easy it is to rearrange things."
However, most people ask him whether Numbers is a replacement for Microsoft Excel. He tells potential users that Numbers "is for individuals, perhaps not for offices or corporations." He noted that Apple does not offer site licenses, which would make the software package more attractive for a large installation.
But for a small company, such as Seattle-based Delicious Monster, which makes the Mac OS X cataloguing application Delicious Library, Numbers was a drop-in replacement for Excel.
"I booted up Numbers the day I got it," said Delicious Monster CEO William Jon Shipley. Shipley said he imported all of his Excel spreadsheets, which he used for tracking his companys weekly sales, into Numbers.
"For good or bad, it was exactly as I saw it in Excel," he said. "It was really beautiful with Numbers automatic chart backgrounds, way better than it ever looked in Excel."
He said he was able to convert his entire archive of business files over—with all of his formulas and formatting intact—within 40 minutes.
"Ill never go back to Excel," he said.
However, Shipley admitted that he never took advantage of any scripting in Excel. Numbers does not support any Visual Basic scripts, which many businesses rely upon. Shipley also said that he thought it was "lame beyond belief" that Numbers does not support AppleScript, Apples own native scripting language.
"Apple told developers for years to include AppleScript support," he said. Though, he said, Apple, of Cupertino, Calif., could "absolutely" add in AppleScript support to Numbers via a software update.
"Apple is really the only company that could get away with making a spreadsheet for the Mac," Shipley said. "Excel is so entrenched, but entrenched does not equal good."
Although as a developer, Shipley criticized Apple for keeping the iWork application file formats closed, unlike Microsofts recent move to open file formats, he admitted that the iWork applications "create a nice target for developers to aim for."
Still, for some businesses, Numbers remains a consumer application and not an adequate tool for their needs.
"Numbers has many great style and spreadsheet features, but I wanted to take a brief look at the data interchange capabilities [and] it looks like there arent any," said Bruce Robertson, owner of Concise Design, a database and Web development service company in Redmond, Wash.
"Numbers seems similar to other first-generation iWork apps, in that it provides no scripting support. Hopefully this will come, as it did—marginally—for Pages and Keynote," he said. "It looks like the only way to effectively get data into templates is by copying and pasting or manual data entry. The spreadsheet regions are named tables but it doesnt look like there are functions or menu commands that can connect to them or import into them.
"Unlike Excel," he said, "you cannot use one Numbers file as a data source for another. Nor can you drag a table between Numbers files. The data format is XML, but we will probably not see translators any time soon. You can drag items from Address Book or iCal. Numbers is beautiful and versatile, but when it comes to inserting data, it appears that there are no automation options."
Though there may be no causal relationship, this week Apple also confirmed that it has quietly allowed AppleWorks, its long-time consumer office suite, to be marked with "end of life" status.
The suite, which included word processing, spreadsheet, database, drawing and painting applications, began life in 1984 as ClarisWorks for the Apple II. It was ported to the Macintosh in 1991 and to Windows in 1993.
An Apple representative said iWork 08 "can open AppleWorks word processing, spreadsheet and presentation documents."
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