Pages: Word Processing Gets Better on iOS

There’s been a lot of hullaballoo over the changes made to Pages for Mac, specifically in regard to making the app simpler and less powerful. But I haven’t heard much about the Pages update for iOS, which is exactly why we decided to jump into it here at AppStorm. Apple has promised not just to change the design of the iOS versions of Pages to bring it more in line with Pages for Mac, but they’ve also promised to get rid of some of the problems Pages used to suffer previously.

These changes amount from little things, like under-the-hood improvements that positively affect mobile devices (but negatively affect Mac users), to big things like a complete design overhaul. Not only that, but the app is now free if you’re buying a new iPhone or iPad. Let’s take a look and see whether or not the new Pages is truly a welcome improvement.

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Fresh Design

Pages loses all of the texture of the old version and gets reduced down to the bare minimum. For me, Pages is one of the most obvious visual cues of Apple’s change in design from iOS 6 to iOS 7. While, in many ways, it’s easier to use, it’s also less visually obvious.

A new experience means a new welcome mat.

A new experience means a new welcome mat.

What I mean by this is pretty simple. Apple is using iOS 7’s new buttons, which means that the buttons look more like selectable text fields. Let me give you an example. The Format toolbar now brings up three options: Style, List, and Layout. If Layout is selected, then the text is white and the button’s field is filled with brown. The other unselected buttons aren’t filled with colour.

But unless you experiment with the app, there’s no real way to know which option you’ve selected until you’ve memorized the colours. I get confused every time I open Pages for a brief second, and I doubt I’m the only one. It’s pretty, but not exactly functional user interface design.

Some of the user design could be more inspired. You lose some personality in the flatness.

Some of the user design could be more inspired. You lose some personality in the flatness.

That being said, the app does feel a little easier to navigate. A lot of the visual weight is gone. I could talk for a while about the different implications about this, and ultimately it’s both a good and a bad thing. But for a word processor, losing the visual weight is a great goal to have. Minimalist text editors are all the rage — I’m typing this on Byword right now — but that’s simply because they make it easier to write.

What does that mean? It means that, from my perspective, Pages makes it easier to focus on writing. That makes it a better word processor, at least for me, so despite its problems with buttons, I’m giving it a definite thumbs up.

There is one odd thing I should note about the design: compared to Pages on Mac, Pages for iOS looks considerably different. While the OS X version is taking some influence from Pages, it still looks very much like a Mac app. In an update focused on parity between both apps, it’s odd that the Mac app still looks so familiar. For me, it does require some adjusting to go back and forth. Arguably, that’s a good thing because it means Apple is designing with their platforms in mind. But I still think it’s odd.

A New File Format

There’s one massive change that I’d like to talk about before discussing new features too, and that’s the new file format Apple is introducing to Pages. I’ve also read a lot about this change. In short, the old format was much more human-readable. Human-readable file formats, like open text, are good because it means they’re more likely to be readable for a longer period of time. In short, it just means your precious documents are less likely to become obsolete. ( Fun fact: Shooting in RAW on a DSLR camera is a much better file format for similar reasons of longevity. You can always change RAW to JPEG, but not the other way around, and RAWs are non-destructive in nature.)

The new file format on iOS means all your documents have to be converted. As well, a ton of focus is placed on the Open in Another App button, which I find curious.

The new file format on iOS means all your documents have to be converted. As well, a ton of focus is placed on the Open in Another App button, which I find curious.

While the new format is less human-readable, I’m not entirely sure it’s a problem for some of us. After all, when was the last time you needed a text document from 1999? Certainly, they’re nice to have on hand and some of my childhood memories come from .doc formats on Windows 95, but I can’t say that I think they’re the most important feature in a file format.

The new file format does, however, bring some much-needed enhancements to the table. First of all, it brings some editing elements closer together. Jeffrey Battersby suggests in a Macworld article that the new iWorks 13 combines two document-editing paradigms, as he calls them: word processing and page layout. I’d imagine that the combination has to do with the change to a more binary file format, which means that combining plain text (which used to be more human-readable) and page layouts (traditionally less human-readable) into one file is much easier than it used to be.

New File Format = Feature Parity

What does this actually mean for you, though? It means that feature parity in the iOS version happens much more easily. I used to always get alerts that the document I wanted to open in Pages on my iPhone couldn’t be opened because it was created on a Mac and too complex. That’s no longer the case. I’m going to attribute this to the new file format.

So combining graphs and charts should be even easier with the new Pages. Without cross-platform issues, it also means that working with Mac users is even easier — and we hope it should be, given that you can now send them links to collaborate on a document together. (From what I can tell, and correct me if I’m wrong, but you can send links to collaborate in iCloud on the Web but you can’t collaborate on a document you’re invited to collaborate on with your iPhone. It’s bizarre and senseless, and I don’t like this one bit.)

Editing visually heavy documents on Mac and iOS is a lot easier now.

Editing visually heavy documents on Mac and iOS is a lot easier now.

What this means for Mac users is that, for a lot of them, using Pages for layout is going to be a complete and total wreck. For iPhone and iPad users, this is an ostensible improvement. Pages becomes a lot more useful.

Part of this is a use case issue. While I don’t use Pages much for complicated layout work (preferring to use Adobe programs like InDesign), I know there are some people who will. It’s a shame, because while the iOS versions of the app have gotten much better, from my eyes, their integration with the Mac app is now both their biggest success and their biggest failing.

The new Pages feels much faster thanks to an absence of visual cruft.

The new Pages feels much faster thanks to an absence of visual cruft.

The second-biggest shortcoming is a lack of custom fonts. I’m a big fan of desktop fonts. I like using them in Pages, especially to spruce up boring documents like résumés. (My opening line under my qualifications for graphic designer? “Too cool for Times New Roman.”) Unfortunately, Pages still can’t import custom fonts. I can dream.

Moving On

For some people, dealing with change is difficult. I read a joke about the new Pages apps: if you’re having problems adjusting, the problem isn’t Pages — you’re just old. And maybe that’s true. But it’s always difficult when new features are introduced and older, powerful, much more tangibly important features are removed concurrently. What are you supposed to do?

For some of us, that means taking the good with the bad. While I would hesitate to give the Mac version of Pages a great review, the iOS version stands strong as a sterling example of great app development. I’ve spoken a lot about the way that the Mac and iOS versions of Pages work together, but I think it’s important. Design isn’t just how something looks; it’s how something works. Steve Jobs said that. Pages for iOS and Mac work together. On that front, the new iOS updates to Pages are largely very successful.


Summary

While the new Pages for Mac update might have you up in arms, the update to iOS could have you dancing. With the exception of some odd design choices, it's a huge improvement.

  • Pages 2.0  | 
  • Free with a new iOS device; $9.99 on the App Store  | 
  • Apple
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