The case for ditching Microsoft Office if you have a Mac

Well, I think this is part of the case. It’s a fine enough argument but maybe it’s not stating anything new: Apple’s Pages, Numbers and especially Keynote are in many ways better than Microsoft Word, Excel and especially PowerPoint. For better, I don’t just mean free or that they are installed when you buy a new Mac, I mean actually better.

That’s an easy claim to make when one’s work is not stretching the limits of what word processing, spreadsheets or presentations are doing. Except Keynote vs PowerPoint. That’s a separate argument, less because Keynote is as good as it is and more because PowerPoint isn’t.

But it’s this kind of more-complex, depends-on-your-needs argument that maybe this article from Apple Gazette lacks. But for an otherwise good laying out of the situation, take a look:

For years, Microsoft Office has been the gold standard for productivity software for business. If you took an inventory of the applications on most computers used in the corporate environment, chances are you’d find some version of Word, Powerpoint, and Excel installed on the majority of hard drives. MS Office has gotten so ubiquitous in fact, that it is installed on more than 85% of business workstations worldwide, making it as dominant in the productivity software space as Window is amongst operating systems. Fortunately, Apple has created a viable alternative to Office in the form of Pages, Numbers, and Keynote, collectively known as iWork. These apps provide most of the same functionality as Microsoft’s software, but with the simplicity and ease of use that we expect from an Apple product. Here’s iWork is the better software solution for Mac users.

Why Apple’s Productivity Apps Should Replace Microsoft Office for Mac Users – (no byline), Apple Gazette (24 October 2014)

Read the full piece.

What I’ll be buying after yesterday’s Apple announcements

Nothing. That’s no reflection on the new hardware, it is a semantic reflection on how the three things I will take away are all free software. Apple announced OS X Yosemite and I know this is good because I’ve been using it for months.

It’s one of those that, like OS X Mavericks before it and iOS 8 now, you can’t necessarily point to a feature that is overwhelming and an absolute must-have, but you try going back to the iOS 7 or the previous OS X.

Tell a lie. Continuity. I’ve experienced this feature already and it’s going to become normal. Start a message on my iPhone and finish it on my Mac without doing anything in between. Just pop the iPhone down on the desk, if I like, and carry on typing mid-sentence, mid-word on my Mac. Answering calls on the iPad when my iPhone is in another room. Definitely a killer feature.

So much so that if you have a Mac that will run OS X Yosemite, go get it. Available now and free on the Mac App Store.

An update to iOS 8 is also free but coming on Monday. The biggest new feature is Apple Pay and I don’t yet know how that will work here in the UK but for the States, it’s great.

Just to wrap up the three, there are actually two more three free things and Apple calls them all iWork. I honestly don’t know whether anyone else ever uses or remembers that term now as I think of the three parts of iWork as separate things. They’re Pages, the word processor, Numbers, the spreadsheet and Keynote, the presentation software. All very good, now all updated – twice. Once for OS X Yosemite, once for iOS 8.

In late 2012, I think it was the possibility of a Retina-screen iMac that made me look at replacing my ancient Mac Pro. They didn’t bring out a Retina one, not until yesterday, but I am so very happy with the 27in iMac I did buy that I’m not fussed. And I will remain unfussed until I see one in the flesh and covet its screen.

Down at the cheaper end of the Mac line, there is the newly revamped Mac mini. If I were in the market, I’d be looking seriously at that.

Still, who knew that Apple’s advertising line for yesterday’s event would be a gag? “It’s been way too long,” it said, and I don’t know what people expected but not that it was a reference to the iPhone 6 launch a few weeks ago.

It’s not enough to have all your work with you

It has to really be with you and you need to know what it all is.

Follow. Earlier this week, I did a trio of writing workshops at a university and I think it went great: I had a tremendous time. (Quick aside? It was all for school kids who were being shown the university and I learnt afterwards that as well as the main schools I’d been told were coming, there was a small contingent from my own old one. I found out far too late to ask who was from there so it is a little bit freaky. I have this week taught Year 10 kids from my own school and I don’t know who they were.)

After all that was done, though, there was a presentation and if there had been enough time, each of us writers working there that day could’ve performed a piece of their work. I usually write books and scripts, things far too long to rattle off in a couple of minutes. But while Cat Weatherill told a story and Alan Kurly McGeachie recited a poem with verve and gusto, I searched my iPad.

I’d been asked during the presentation if I had something I could read and I did say yes.


There was no internet reception in that hall.

So even though I could see some items in Evernote, I couldn’t open them. (You can choose to make a notebook and all its contents be permanently available on your device, but you have to be connected to the internet to say you want to do that.) Pages and iCloud did better but I couldn’t easily see what I’d got because documents are shown as big icons which is great because you see the shape of page 1 and can readily know what each one is. But it’s rubbish when you’re scrolling through, searching for something short.

I found the start of a novel in Pages. It’s a bit violent but I reckoned it worked. I found a short story called Elite Death Squirrels which fit a lot of the things I’d been talking about with the kids all day.

But both were pretty long, even the excerpt from the novel was just too long. So with time pressing, I didn’t get to perform.

I would’ve liked to. But what narks me is that I wasn’t able to provide what was asked of me. It wasn’t a big deal from their point of view and it came up unexpectedly, yet that is a big deal from my point of view and I imagine I’m always ready. When you’ve done a few workshops you end up having this little mental toolbox of things you can reach for. Mine wasn’t full enough.

What narks me even more, though, is that I did have something the perfect length and which would also have spoken to the points I was making during the day. It’s a two-hander script I wrote during a young writers’ session and I rather like it.

I know I wrote it, I remember the lines, I’m wondering if I even kept it. Because it wasn’t on my iPad and even now, sitting here with full internet, I can’t track it down. That is unusual and disturbing.

But the take away from all this is that you need to keep your work with you and make sure you can actually get to t. Plus, know what you’ve got before you just say ‘yes’ to anyone who asks.



‘Appy days 2013

I’m a bit disappointed with Apple’s Best of 2013 pick of apps. There’s no real reason I should be, it’s just a list of what’s sold best and what Apple staff seem to like, but I thought I’d find something great in there that I wasn’t already using. And I admit, I unthinkingly expected to see software that helps you be more productive. This year, more than any, I’ve leant on software to get my work done and it’s been a terribly rewarding, satisfying kind of time because I’ve done so much more in so many more areas.

So when I wrote to you about Apple’s pick yesterday, I started in the expectation that I could show you some great tools.

Since that didn’t really work out, since the Best of 2013 became more of a curiosity than a grab bag of productivity tools, let me do what I wanted it to do. Let me show you the best productivity apps of the year.

Two very, very big caveats. One, I’m on a Mac so if you’re on a PC today then this is of precisely zero use to you. Well, not quite: there are some things here that are cross-platform. Platform-agnostic. But I’ll never have the patience to read through a list of Windows applications to find the single thing that will also run on my Mac, so if you’re in that boat, have a mug of tea instead and we’ll chat later.

Two, I’m sure some of these apps came out in 2013 but I’m never going to check. These are the tools that have made me enormously and enjoyably productive in 2013 and that includes ancient apps I’ve only just discovered and it includes old stalwarts that I have used for years. I know. Crazy. Maybe that’s why Apple’s list is more entertainment and games: maybe not much came out this year.

Enough. Here’s the list. I tell you now, it’s not as long as I thought it would be.


(Mac: £54.99/US$79.99, iPhone £13.99/US$19.99, iPad £27.99/US$39.99)

Yes, I have all three and once you’ve bought any of them, you’ll go get the other two as well. So let me add that up for you: in the UK, the triptych costs you £96.97 and in the US it’s $139.97. Prices must vary a bit as I’m sure I spent nearer £80 when I bought them but if you’ve gulped, so have I: I’m going to be buying them again in 2014.

That amuses me a little: I keep saying that this price is incredibly cheap considering what OmniFocus has meant to me and that I would gladly pay it again – and now I’m going to. Because there are new versions coming and they are all paid upgrades. I expect there’ll be a discount for existing users of the Mac one but I know there won’t be for the iPad version because there wasn’t for the new iPhone one.

Nonetheless, the second that new iPhone version was out, I bought it. Actually, it requires iOS 7 so what I did was upgrade to iOS 7 and then immediately buy OmniFocus 2 for iPhone. I liked the previous version very much but I like this even more and use it even more. I’m not entirely sure that is possible, but I do.

All of which is a lot of detail to throw at you when you may have never even heard of OmniFocus. It’s a To Do task manager. But that is a bit like saying War and Peace is a stack of paper with some ink on it. 

OmniFocus may not be for you: it is very powerful and it tends to do your head in a bit at first before you get a whole series of Damascus moments and love it. I wrote in a Mac magazine once that “first it destroys your mind, then it owns your soul” and I meant it as a compliment.

But if it’s more than you need or it’s more than you can face, then £96.97 isn’t cheap, it’s suddenly a lot of cash. So tread carefully but do tread, okay? 

While The Omni Group has not announced its plans, the fairly smart money says that the new OmniFocus 2 for iPhone will be followed soon to soonish by version 2 for the iPad and then at some point for the Mac. This makes things a tiny bit tricky. I’d like to tell you to wait but I also want you to get the benefits of this right now. If the Mac version were easier to use, I’d say pull the trigger: the odds are that if you buy OmniFocus 1 for Mac now you will get version 2 for free when it comes. No guarantees, but it’s highly likely. And that dispenses with the money concern.

But it is a concern that this Mac one is hard to use. I’m happy that I put the work in and I enjoy that the Mac one is very powerful. But I got on the beta test for OmniFocus 2 for Mac early in 2013 and have found it hard to go back. That beta has closed and it looks like whenever OmniFocus 2 for Mac comes out for real, it will look and act substantially different to the beta because OS X Mavericks has brought some new possibilities. But still, even the unfinished beta was easier enough to use that I suddenly found version 1 to be a chore.

How’s this? Right now the very best version of OmniFocus is the one for iPad. It will be updated and it will be radically updated if the iPhone is a clue, but even if you buy it an hour before a new version comes out, it’s still a fantastically tremendous application that will transform you. Not your life, it will transform you.

Enough so that I really did pay the money again for the iPhone one and I really will immediately, no IMMEDIATELY, buy the new versions for iPad and Mac whenever they come. 

Take a look at the video about the iPhone version on this Omni Group page. Then this is a longer video about the iPad version – did I mention it’s great? – and a much, much longer but very good series of videos by independent writer David Sparks about the Mac version.

I promise to be more concise about everything else on the list. <Smiles nicely but has fingers crossed behind his back>


Free or US$35/year for premium (gets you extra features)

It’s an app you can make notes in. There must be eleventy-billion such apps. And okay, you can also pop PDFs in there. Images. You can make a clipping from a web site and drag that in to Evernote. Okay.

But I was in a meeting, right, and suddenly needed a contract that had nothing to do with that day’s work. “Oh, yeah, that one,” I said and then called it up on my iPad exactly as if I’d been a soothsayer and known to bring it with me.

That worked and made me look very good because whatever you put in Evernote, you can get out of Evernote – wherever you are. I enter a gigantic number of notes in Evernote for iPhone and Evernote for iPad but I also use the Mac one a lot and I’ve used the PC version on occasion. I’ve been waiting in someone’s office and I’ve used their computer to open the Evernote website. And in each case, wherever I am, whatever I’m using, every single note I’ve ever made is right there.


Now free

I was on a bus going to my mother when I had an idea for a book. Because I had my iPad and it had the Pages word processor on it, I started to make some notes – and by the time I’d got to her, I’d written the first thousand words of what became The Blank Screen book. That book became a workshop that I’ve now run for individuals, students, university staff, colleges and in online seminars. And it became this blog, which is how I got to meet you. I’d call that worth the price of admission.

Mind you, I would like to mention now that I paid for Pages. It only became free toward the end of 2013 and if you think I’m narked by that, no. Fine. I think it is very undervalued but if you can get it for free, terrific. I’ve got so much out of this software already that I am completely fine with having paid whatever it was. Something preposterously cheap, I remember that.

Incidentally, I do have Word on this Mac. I’ve had Microsoft Word on every machine since the 1980s and I’ve used it on every machine. But the other day someone emailed me a Word document when I was using my MacBook. I’d had a problem with the hard disk on that and had wiped it completely, installed OS X Mavericks and got back to work. And there I was with this Word attachment, suddenly realising that I didn’t have Word.

Not only did I not have Word on there, for the first time in all those years, but I also hadn’t noticed. I’d reformatted that drive a month before and used the machine endlessly. Hadn’t noticed Word was gone.

And I didn’t have to notice now, either. Because my Mac just opened the document for me in Pages. 

I had to send that document back in Word format and Pages just did that for me too.

Adobe InDesign

Part of Adobe Creative Cloud, monthly rental cost varies

I used to work a lot on Radio Times, the website, and a bit on the magazine. There was this job where the site regularly needed some text from the mag and by chance of the schedules, it was always a bit easier to get it straight out of the magazine pages before they went to press. I leapt at it. It was a tedious, trivial and surprisingly slow job and I sped it up with some Word macros that would take the heavily formatted magazine text and make it heavily unformatted for the website.

But it also meant using the page layout program, Adobe InDesign. It is ridiculous how little you needed to know in order to do the thing I needed to do, but I would take the time to just explore InDesign for a minute or two each week. And over the years, especially since I was taking text from some superbly designed Radio Times pages, I learnt a lot. Taught myself InDesign.

To the extent that earlier this year Radio Times hired me back to work on a book specifically because I knew Adobe InDesign. And I learnt even more from doing that book work, to the extent that when I got back to my own office, I could and did design my The Blank Screen book in Adobe InDesign.

Read more about it and the whole Adobe Creative Cloud.


Now free

Presentation software. This – and the Pages and Numbers spreadsheet that I use daily – is part of Apple’s iWorks suite of productivity applications and I’m really surprised they weren’t in the company’s pick of the year. They were great and cheap, now they’re pretty great and free. This year’s new versions shed some features (that are apparently coming back slowly) and gained some others. 

For the work I do, I have barely missed any of those features, whatever they are, and I have very much enjoyed using the latest versions. So far I’ve only used Keynote to present The Blank Screen workshop once but it was a pleasure. No one has ever said that about PowerPoint.

Read more about Keynote for Mac (and the iPhone/iPad ones are the same) on Apple’s page.

Reeder 2

Universal for iPad and iPhone: £2.99

In 2012, it was for iPhone, iPad and Mac. And I used them all. It’s a newsreader, an RSS newsreader, which means rather than my going to a couple of hundred websites to read news and articles, they come to me. I’ve already messed with your head and your patience by going in to immense detail, so lemme just say that the world has changed. Right now Reeder for Mac is no longer available while a lot of work is being done under the hood.

I miss it more than I can say. And I’ve used alternatives but still Reeder and most particularly the new Reeder 2 are so well designed and just, you know, right, that I simply don’t read RSS on my Mac any more. The second it’s back out for Mac, I’m having it and I’ll get back to using it on all my machines.

Read more about Reeder and a tiny bit more about what’s happening with the Mac version on the official site.


Angela showed me this on her iPhone one day and I wondered why anyone would want such a thing as a password manager. By the end of that one day, it was on my iPhone and on the front screen too. Later, I showed Angela the Mac version and that’s now on her machine.

This is why. I need to do some financial things in a minute so I’ll press the Apple and / keys here on my Mac and it will open 1Password. With one tap 1Password will open up my bank’s online banking website, enter my account numbers, passwords and all that. It doesn’t go all the way on that site: I have one last page to go through, one last piece of security, but it’s so fast getting to that point that I use it constantly.

And then later if I am booking train tickets – I’m always booking train tickets – 1Password will log me in to and it will enter all my credit card details when I tell it to. 

I appear to have a preposterous number of websites I use that require passwords and so I have a preposterous number of passwords – an increasing number of which are generated by 1Password to be extra hard to crack. No more using the word ‘pencil’ as a password here. 

There is one thing I don’t like and it is the agony when you upgrade from one version to the next on iOS. It isn’t an upgrade, it isn’t an installer, it is alchemy. I can’t fathom how it can be so hard to do but once it’s done or if when you’re buying it for the first time, everything is so well done and easy that I can’t resist it. I know for certain that I use 1Password every single day, without fail, and I suspect I usually use it many times.

We could stop now

Those are the tools I spend my life in at the moment. I do also lean on iTunes a lot because I like telling it to play me an hour’s worth of music and then I’ll write until it stops. Plus I’ve been addicted to the new iTunes Radio which this very day also went live in the UK.

Then I came to really relish using iBooks Author to do the iBooks version of The Blank Screen (here’s the UK iBooks one and here’s the US iBooks one). TextExpander is one of those utilities that is so useful you forget it isn’t part of the Mac generally, but I’ve forgotten that it isn’t part of the Mac generally. Same with Hazel and Keyboard Maestro, both of which I’m just coming to use.

I really did expect that this would be a vastly longer list. Can you imagine that? In any average day I must surely use above twenty different software applications and I use them hard, but it’s only this set that I can honestly point to do as being the key productivity tools for me this year.

Next year may be a little different. I expect to carry on with all of these but I did a couple of projects using OmniOutliner for Mac (an outlining program from the same firm that makes my beloved OmniFocus) and now I’ve just got that for iPad too so it’s featuring more in my usual workflow. Bugger. I’ve been trying to avoid the word workflow. Ah, what can you do?

Similarly, I’m actually writing this to you in MarsEdit, the blogging tool that I’ve heard so much about for so long. I’m only on the trial version but it’s pretty much as good as advertised so I may very well continue with it. We’ll see. It doesn’t exist on iOS and I write a huge amount there so it’s not a guaranteed mandatory purchase or if it were, it isn’t guaranteed that I’ll use it a lot.

Whereas I want to give an honorary mention to some hardware. The best thing I ever bought was my 27in iMac last December: Macs do last a long time so my previous office Mac was a good six or seven years old and this new one boomed, just boomed into my working life. But then maybe the best thing I ever bought was my iPad Air as right now it is the thing I use most. I use it more than my kettle. I know.

I had thought that I used my original iPad a lot and while I didn’t regret giving it to my mother, I missed it more than I expected. And then I bought the iPad Air and am using it perhaps ten times as much as I did that original one.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that I never step away from one keyboard or another and I see why you say that, but I can prove you’re wrong. By going now.

I need tea. Can I make you one?

Me and NYT on Microsoft Word vs Apple Pages

Last Friday, I went to open a Microsoft Word document someone had sent me and found that I didn't have Word on my machine. It was a true shock: I've had Word on everything since the 1980s when I began writing about word processors in various computer magazines.

What's more, I realised why I didn't have it. When I'd installed OS X Mavericks on my MacBook Pro it had found some problems with the hard disc. Serious, creaking, get out fast problems. So I had it reformat the whole drive and sort things out. I'd backed up everything, I backed it all up again just in case, fine. But apparently I hadn't remembered to put Word back on afterwards.

And here was the reason that the shock was the slap it was: it must be a month, it could be six weeks since I installed OS X Mavericks. So I'd not needed Word in all that time, not needed it or wanted it or assumed I should use it, for at least a month.

What's more, I looked at this document and it was open. My MacBook had seen that I'd didn't have Word and so it had just opened the document in the word processor I did have, Apple's own Pages. I now had the choice of schlepping off to find my Word installer or just getting on with my work so I just got on with my work.

Now, this was one Word document in a project that had involved slightly over fifty of them and I'd done the giant part of the work on my iMac which does have Word and I did use Word. This was just one last document that came through late and I was going to have to send it back as Word; if there had been all fifty left to do this way, I'd have installed Word. I think. But for one job, I just accepted that there would be a final convert-to-Word step when I was done.

I like Pages. I've always liked it. I was on a bus when I got the idea for writing a book about productivity for writers and I wrote the first thousand words of it right there on my iPad in Pages. Perhaps because I'd started it there, I carried on. There was also the fact that mentally I was associating my iMac with the 150,000-word book I was writing about Blake's 7 and I was associating my MacBook with a Doctor Who audio script that was due at the same time. But whatever my psychological reasoning, it was still that I'd pick up the iPad to carry on writing The Blank Screen and that meant it was still the case that I'd write it in Pages.

At that stage, the project was chiefly about getting the ideas down and exploring how to convey it. I later moved all the text to Word to send to my proofreaders, I then moved it to Apple's iBooks Author to do one version. I moved it all to Adobe InDesign to make the paperback and the Kindle versions. But for bashing in the words, Pages on my iPad was perfect. The best word processor is the one you've got now but Pages did that Apple thing of staying out of my way while I concentrated on my writing.

So I did go from liking it to being quite the fan and I was aware of this. I didn't notice that it had supplanted Word on my MacBook. I'm trying to think how much else I must have written in Pages on that machine without thinking about it. Certainly a few radio reviews for Radio Times magazine. Definitely several invoices. Must be a lot, but I just can't remember the word processor I used for what.

All of which is nice for me and I could just recommend Pages to you in the certain knowledge that you already have a word processor and have no need to move to a new one.

But Pages just went through a big change. It became free for new users, for one thing. I've said before that I find the free Google Docs a bit clunky and ugly yet I like it more every time I see that price. I do wonder at the decision to make it free: it's obviously very nice for new users and I've no problem with the fact that I bought my copies because I've had a huge amount of use out of it. Yet if you make something free, you do devalue it.

I remember a friend complaining that Word, at the time, cost several hundred pounds and saying why on a Earth would it? “It's only a word processor!” I suggested that she try making one and she'd then see what an enormous job it was. She didn't appreciate the brilliance of the work that had gone in to just a word processor that cost hundreds of pounds. She didn't believe me when I reported that Microsoft had up to then spent a billion dollars developing it. (True.) How much less would she now regard a free word processor?

Curiously, the word free gets people buying, so to speak, and I'm sure it gets people devaluing the word processor, but it doesn't stop anyone bitching about problems. In this case they're right: the new, free version of Pages for Mac in particular has issues.

The key aim of Apple for this release has been to make Pages on the Mac work the same and work with the same documents as Pages on iPad and iPhone. Fine. It also has this thing now where I can send anyone a pages document and they can open it – not through conversions, not through any fiddling and actually not just opening the document either. They can open Pages. Whether they've got it or not. Whether they're on a Mac or a PC. Click on the document I send you and, if you want, you're reading and editing it in Pages in your Web browser.

Apparently it is startlingly marvellous to all of us who get what is happening and can see how hard it is to do – but, infinitely more importantly, for those who do not happen to understand all that's happening, it is just a Pages document. They have no need to tell the difference between owning Pages the application and running Pages in their browser. That is a truly remarkable accomplishment and it is how computers should be: our work is what matters first. It's also a true sea change from the Microsoft approach which makes everything just difficult enough that you appreciate and you value all the company is doing for your money.

But I say it's apparently this good because this is what I keep hearing – and I have yet to have the slightest need to use the feature myself.

And the problem many people have is that in order to get this new feature, to get the ability to work across platforms, Apple has stripped Pages down and lost key features. That's what it feels like: really it's more that they started again and haven't built it back up to all it was.

The only thing is, I've no idea what the missing features are. For me in my current work, the only thing I've hit is that it's slightly more of a pain switching on the word count. (The same cross-platform good stuff and missing features bad stuff has happened to Pages' stablemates Numbers and Keynote. I've seen the difference in Numbers and that's more annoying to me.)

Apple promises that it is bringing all this stuff back and, actually, I believe them. This is what they did with the video editing software, Final Cut Pro X. And since it's not causing me problems at the moment, it's easy for me to carry on believing them.

Plus, I like the new look and feel of Pages. I like how I get on with my writing and then if I need something, if I need some tool, I look up and find that tool just about exactly where you'd think it should be. Contrast that to Word where you have a thousand icons and have to hover over them all to see what they do.

When I started writing this to you, I didn't realise how much I wanted to say. I'd found an interesting article in the New York Times that compared Pages and Word and I wanted you to see it. So I wrote the headline “NYT on Microsoft Word vs Apple Pages”. Having now blathered on at you at this length, I've just gone to change that headline to “Me and NYT” on it. And I'm mithered over whether that now sounds as if I wrote the Times article. Sorry for any confusion there.

And if you haven't had enough of musings about Pages vs Word, do take a look at the NYT article: