Apple's new Mac iWork apps: A big step back in workflow automation

On Tuesday evening Apple posted updates to its iWork apps for Mac - Pages, Keynote and Numbers. Featured during Apple's iPad and Mac event in San Francisco, the new versions of iWork apps sport new features, more thorough iCloud integration and an a unified file format compatible with their iOS counterparts. But there are some important pieces missing for users interested workflow automation, according to Clark Goble, who maintains Clark's Tech Blog. (Goble's post has been widely linked, so you can find a cached copy at Fireballed.org if the original doesn't load for you.)

I know I have a huge number of scripts — often with complicated hacks to get around the limits in Pages and Number’s incomplete Applescript Dictionaries.

Here’s the bad news. They won’t work now. Effectively Applescript support is gone. Numbers doesn’t even have a dictionary. And Pages has had nearly everything removed.

AppleScript support went from bad to worse

If all this AppleScript talk is making your head spin, let's give you some concrete ideas of what I'm talking about. Opening the AppleScript dictionary of the old version of Pages yielded this:

Here's what opening the AppleScript dictionary of the new Pages looks like:

As you can see, the new version has a lot less functionality that the old version it replaces.

Eddy Cue pointed out on Tuesday that the new iWork apps are a complete rewrite from the replaced four-year-old versions (whose codebases are even older than that). So I'm reluctant to describe the relative absence of AppleScript support as removal, as much as it is omission. If this had been an incremental change to the codebase, removal would be a perfectly adequate word. But this isn't. The new iWork apps are totally new. And in some respects, totally different. The absence of most AppleScript functionality that was there before is what caught Goble's eye, but it isn't the only change.

And as Goble points out, even before now, iWork apps haven't been a shining paragon of AppleScript virtue. iWork apps aren't the only Apple-made products that suffer from limited automation support. On balance when it comes to AppleScript, Apple is a somewhat lousy and really inconsistent eater of its own dog food. I've never been able to figure out why.

Apple's decision to make iWork apps free with the purchase of new hardware is a shot across the bow of Microsoft, which gives away its Office software on its beleaguered Surface tablet. Clearly it helps keep Apple on competitive terms for new iPad and Mac owners who are looking for useful productivity software.

The irony is that Microsoft supports AppleScript in Office more thoroughly than Apple does in its iWork apps. Perhaps that shouldn't be any terrific surprise, as you're likely to find Office in most business environments, especially corporate locations where IT departments are capable of whipping up and supporting AppleScripts to improve the productivity of the workers they support.

Getting back to iWork for a moment, clearly the priority on this release wasn't on workflow automation, or making sure iWork apps had every feature and function they did before - it was on aligning the Mac version of iWork much closer with its iOS counterpart, and creating a common user experience that translates well between devices.

Apple's succeeded on that point, and they've made plenty of embellishments to make some users looking for new features and functionality happy. But AppleScript and other long-standing features are gone. Take a look at this thread about Pages on Apple's discussion site alone to get a sense of what diehard Pages users are saying.

Consumers versus professionals

I work part-time at an Apple reseller. "Does this include Office?" is one of the first questions I get from customers who come in looking at the iPad or the Mac. Up until now, I've had to say no, and then either try to sell them a copy of Office for the Mac or explain to them about the iWork apps and the Mac App Store. It's much easier to explain that Office isn't included, but Apple's own Office-style apps are (and they're capable of reading and producing Office-compatible files). It's one less barrier to entry for prospective buyers of new iPads and Macs.

Entry level consumers, by and large, aren't interested in AppleScript. It's too techy for them, it requires too abstract an understanding of how applications and the system work with one another. But that lowest common denominator consumer doesn't represent the entire spectrum of Mac users. A lot of people depend on Macs to help run their businesses efficiently. And for many of them, workflow automation represents improved productivity, better return on investment, and better usability. It's about getting better results with less process. AppleScript support can be a key differentiator for those customers.

Reversing the course

To be clear, unless you've done something unusual with your iWork installation, you should still have the old apps inside an iWork '09 folder in your Applications folder, and they should still be functional (at least they are in the two machines I've upgraded with the new software - as in all things, your mileage may vary). If you've upgraded to the new releases and you don't like them, you should still be able to use the old ones - albeit with the limitations they've always had, and without the new features like round-trip iCloud support between OS X and iOS.

But this whole issue unveils a more fundamental problem: by neglecting AppleScript support in iWork apps, Apple underserves customers who would otherwise use their products - not just big companies with IT departments, but freelance workers who want to save time, small and medium-sized businesses that benefit from workflow automation tools, and others. AppleScript may be techy, but it's pretty democratic - anyone who wants to use it should be able to use it.

Mavericks is plainly aimed at helping people who use Apple devices every day to get the most out the experience - besides the relatively mild interface adjustments and new apps, the underlying operating system has been bolstered to improve efficiency and performance.

If Apple's iWork developers aren't already hard at work restoring some of this functionality, they should be, for exactly that reason. By excluding AppleScript - and, quite frankly, dumbing down the apps - Apple's gone the exact opposite direction with iWork - they may have improved some core functions (like iCloud sharing and file interoperability) while completely demolishing others in the process, making it less efficient to use the new iWork apps.

I'm not one to trumpet the "iOSification" theory, that Apple is trying to make the Mac the same as iOS devices - in fact, I've been an outspoken critic of that idea. And I don't think that's the case here.

What I suspect happened is that Apple needed to streamline development of the new iWork Mac apps by making them as similar as possible to their iOS counterparts. They took the path of least resistance, and we're left with less capable software that's prettier to look at.

That's not something that Mac users should just roll over and accept. Our Macs are more capable than our iPads. And we should insist that developers of Mac apps - Apple and third-parties alike - help us get the most out of that experience, not get in our way.