Back to the Mac

What can we expect from Apple on October 20th? I have no better idea than anyone. But I can hope!

Educated Guesswork

What everyone expects based on the teaser picture is Mac OS X 10.7 “Lion”. I’m hoping the teaser image reflects some kind of emphasis on 3d, e.g. the Collada support that appears to have been pulled from 10.6. I expect to hear something about the new Final Cut Studio (Motion 5 in particular) — especially since Jobs actually had to deal with rumors of its demise earlier in the year, a new iLife, and — less likely — a significant new iWork. (I wouldn’t be surprised to see an insignificant new iWork, but I’m talking automatic indexing for Pages and serious new functionality for Numbers.)

Aside: it’s funny how “sudden” 10.7 seems given the emphasis on all things iOS over the previous twelve months. A lot of people assumed nothing much was happening on the Mac front because WWDC was all about iOS (indeed some rumor sites have claimed that Apple’s engineering folks have all been pulled off Mac OS X development). I thought at the time that it was all about message management: Apple was carefully orchestrating the release of strategic new products and wasn’t going to confuse people with anything off message.

iWeb: not just the worst iLife App, but the ugliest icon
iWeb: not just the worst iLife App, but the ugliest icon

Rumor has it that iWeb has been completely rewritten and iDVD is gone (it’s been in maintenance mode for a while now). I’d like to see iMovie and Numbers get some serious love. A new iWeb that didn’t suck would be a revelation as that space is still wide open (of the programs in that space, there isn’t a single one I consider useful for pretty much anything). My guess is that the focus of the new iWeb (if there is one) will be MobileMe integration and producing Mobile Safari -friendly pages (something iWeb right now is very, very bad at).

XCode 4 has been in beta for a long time and could get released or have some kind of release date announcement. We might even see some kind of major tool announcement (e.g. some kind of new functionality that will be part of XCode 4 but wasn’t in the semi-public beta).

On the hardware side the consensus is that we’ll see a Macbook Air replacement.

Wishful Thinking

OS Integration

On the OS/software side, I’d love Apple to surprise us with multitouch screen and App Store support for Mac OS X (so you can run iOS apps as Dashboard widgets, say) and Apple TV (which would turn Apple TV into a serious gaming console). This would also hint at the future reintegration of iOS and Mac OS X (indeed I expect and hope to see Mac OS X become “classic” under iOS, but I imagine that’s a few years down the track).

Fix Fracking iTunes

As much as I wish for it, iTunes was just revved, so any hope for serious improvements in the near future will be in vain.

Wireless Sync For Frack’s Sake. Every iOS device ever made has built-in wireless networking and we still have to plug the damn things in to sync them. Seriously?

DRM Craziness. It was one thing when most of us had one computer and one iOS device, but just figuring out which Mac can sync to which iPod / iPhone / iPad or whether I can safely upgrade one of my devices is getting to be difficult for me, and I’m a freaking developer.

I imagine that the way all this stuff works (or doesn’t) must be infuriating for the kinds of people who own buttloads of Macs and iOS devices (like… I don’t know… iOS developers?). Why doesn’t it get fixed?

E.g. when I plug my iPhone 4 into my Macbook Pro or my Mac Pro (and I know it’s synced to one of them) I get the same warning about needing to backup before I can upgrade. WTF? I’d really like to see Apple completely rethink the “rules” by which iTunes operates along the lines of “it’s the job of iTunes and not DRM to stop people pirating shizzle” so that you can sync to any PC and let the PC device whether it can play a track or not.

But then, if syncing were wireless I wouldn’t even need to think about this crap, right?

Organizational Craziness. Until iTunes became a movie store the typical iTunes collection didn’t dominate your storage requirements. These days it’s entirely possible that your iTunes folder is most of the stuff on your hard disk, and that most of your iTunes folder is video. If you want to do something as simple as copy all the music on your desktop to your laptop you’ll need to figure out the inner structure of the iTunes folder (OK it’s not that complicated, but still). Even so, iTunes is just really stupidly organized these days. E.g. by default if you have multiple logins for a Mac, one person can’t play another’s music. And why is your iTunes folder in your music folder when it’s essentially got all kinds of stuff in it?

Bloat and Crap. And then there’s the whole “why is it so freaking slow?” issue. Back before iTunes was iTunes (I believe it was called SoundJam) I wrote an MP3 player (QuickMP3) that could import a music library tens, maybe hundreds, of times faster than iTunes. How? Simply by assuming a file that looked like an audio file was an audio file. My program would assume “foo.mp3” was in fact an mp3 until it tried to play it. 99.9% (or more) of the time this just worked, and the rest of the time it simply resulted in the track being skipped (and removed from the playlist) “just in time”. (iTunes can get tripped up by an MP3 that has become corrupt since it was imported, so it’s not like it doesn’t still need to check at playback anyway.) iTunes makes you wait while it checks each damn track, and audio and video tracks are big and complicated, so it’s slow. There are plenty of boneheaded design decisions in iTunes along these lines and they need to be fixed.

Easy, Stupid Stuff. Recent versions of iTunes are able to go into full-screen visualizer mode with a single keystroke (great) but it takes two to get out of it.

While we’re at it — the new icon really does suck.

3d

Collada Logo

Wouldn’t it be nice if Apple revealed a serious 3d app that would put it back in the 3d landscape. This could either be third-party (e.g. Autodesk reveals 3D Studio Max 2011 running on Mac OS X) or open-source (e.g. Apple releases a fork of Blender with a real Cocoa UI). Given the level of attention Apple’s job ads get, it’s almost inconceivable that it could simply pull a major 3d app out of its ass today without having made a lot of ripples (but it did buy some serious 3d hardware outfits a few years back didn’t it?).

Apple could possibly just buy its way into this market (after all, high-end 3d is one of the biggest segments for the kind of computer Apple makes its money in, and if it wants to keep selling high-end computers it might want to take this into consideration). Autodesk’s market cap is currently around $7B, but it looks a bit overpriced to me (but what do I know?) simply based on its P/E. Maxon is owned by some kind of huge German conglomerate (which might make it both cheaper and easier to acquire than a publicly listed company like Autodesk). But here’s something to think about: Newtek is big in both video and (fadingly so) in 3d, has a highly portable 3D code base, and a market cap of ~$55M. I would guess that Pixologic (zBrush) and Luxology are both possibilities too. Maybe SideFX (Houdini) too.

If Apple is to acquire a 3d vendor it will need to be privately held and, preferably, small. Apple could already have closed a deal on one of the smaller companies mentioned and simply have it under wraps, whereas if it tried to buy Autodesk we’d probably all know about it. A big company like Autodesk is simply too nasty for Apple to buy — it could possibly buy Maya or Softimage from Autodesk though.

Imagine if Final Cut Studio 5 were to include Modo or Lightwave Core, or one of these products became a $195 product for Mac users.

Input

Sony's impossible to parody "Unique Remote" for its GoogleTV Product.
Sony's impossible to parody "Unique Remote" for its GoogleTV Product.

As a modest aside, I’d really like to see a single-piece bluetooth keyboard and trackpad for around $100. Bonus points if it works with iOS devices in the obvious way. But then the existing glass trackpads could do this job too. (And note how that would dovetail nicely with running iOS Apps under OS X (it would be damn useful for iOS developers using the simulators too).

You know what would be really cool? Stick an accelerometer in the Magic Trackpad (or this new thing) and allow it to be a game controller for AppleTVs running iOS games.

Radical Macbook Pro Redesign

I’d like to see Apple release MacBook Pro’s with no internal optical drive, and switch to SD media / USB sticks for software distribution. Multitouch and/or stylus support would be great (indeed, wouldn’t it be neat to get a hybrid tablet now given the direction Apple is heading with the iPad?) but perhaps too much to hope for. (Especially since it might divert developer attention away from iOS.) Given that Apple kind of has too many laptop lines right now, the Macbook Pro 13″ and Macbook Air could merge, while the Macbook Pro 15″ fills the empty space left by removing the optical drive with battery and the Macbook Pro 17″ keeps its optical drive.

Mac Pro Lite / Headless iMac / xMac (Again. Sigh.)

You can now get a bleeding edge, quad core iMac with a decent (but RAM-poor and down-clocked) GPU and a magnificent display that will be obsolete in 18 months simply because its GPU isn’t upgradeable (and frustrating right now because it could so easily have a better GPU with more RAM). The only option for anyone even a little serious about 3d is to pay twice as much for a Mac Pro. This wouldn’t be so bad if there were some kind of not-quite-so-huge-and-expensive Mac Pro option, e.g. a quad core non-Xeon machine with a box half-to-two-thirds the size of a Mac Pro that sold for $1200-1500. There’s plenty of room for Apple margin in there (and it’s not like you can’t pay that kind of money for a modestly awesome PC these days).

I guess the big question for Apple is whether it’s leaving money on the table with its current lineup. I guess their thinking runs like this: some hypothetical buyer wants a Mac to game on or do 3d, and either ends up buying an iMac (and cursing its GPU and having to upgrade in 18 months) or a Mac Pro (and pays Apple an extra $1000 more than he/she intended) or a Windows PC.

In the first case, Apple makes about as much money as it would have if it sold a hypothetical xMac. In the second case Apple makes more money (and the buyer likely ends up being very happy in the long run). And in the third Apple makes no money and perhaps loses a current or potential customer forever. This has to be weighed against the money Apple loses to cannibalized Mac Pro sales if an xMac were an option for the folks who currently buy Mac Pros because there is no cheaper option, even though they don’t need all the goodies the Mac Pro offers (overpriced server CPUs chief among them).

One possible option would be a bigger Mac Mini with a quad core CPU, 8GB RAM, an SSD and a decent (and upgradeable) GPU. It’s hard to imagine Apple couldn’t make serious margin on such a machine without cannibalizing Mac Pro sales (or perhaps even not caring if it did).

But it’s not going to happen.

Bottom Line

(Edit: I’ve added how I did in parentheses.)

  • iOS 4.2 and 10.6.5 will probably get mentioned/announced/released (yeah this is a Mac event but iOS 4.2 is bound to 10.6.5 for printing) (no)
  • 10.7 Announcement (“Spring 2011”) (“Summer 2011”)
  • Final Cut Studio 5 Announcement (“Early 2011” — NAB is in April, but perhaps earlier since Apple doesn’t care much about trade shows any more) (no)
  • New iLife with no iDVD and iWeb replacement (yes, iDVD and iWeb in maintenance mode)
  • New iWork but with disappointing feature set (no)
  • New Macbook Air (yes, two)
  • XCode 4 Announcement (“Available for download today”) (no)
  • Some speed bumps (no, unless you count the Macbooks Air)
  • Addendum: PCWorld’s wish list includes iChat support for FaceTime which I think is almost certain (yes)

And I did not predict the Mac App store. (I was fooled by Apple’s denial of earlier rumors, which turns out to have been a half-truth.)

Some iPad Apps

ArtStudio

If you want to draw on the iPad it’s hard to miss Brushes ($9.99) or Autodesk Sketchbook Pro ($7.99), but it’s rather easy to overlook ArtStudio ($0.99). I’m quoting prices from memory (and they’re liable to change as well) so don’t shoot me if I’m not exactly right.

I think Sketchbook Pro has a better “feel” than ArtStudio (I can’t comment on Brushes because I paid $4.99 for the iPhone app and refuse to give the developer any more money until I see significant UI improvements) but ArtStudio wins big on user interface. First off, Sketchbook reduces its UI to a single dot which lets you tweak your current brush, and access the rest of the UI. ArtStudio puts hidden undo and redo in corners of the screen, and has a better located “show me the UI” button. As a result, ArtStudio is my go-to app for doodling, while Sketchbook Pro looks pretty and sits in the corner.

ArtStudio does have some UI blemishes — its more advanced function buttons are just ugly — but it gives quicker access to common functions (complete with press and hold to grab colors from your image). I love it.

If I had to pick one, I’d definitely pick ArtStudio over Sketchbook Pro right now — and at one dollar it’s an absolute steal right now, although I know the latter is very popular among digital artists, and I expect the program to improve over time.

Freeform

The other day I needed a drawing program badly, and the first one that occurred to me was Omnigraffle — for which I have a license somewhere. Then I remembered that Omni is porting everything to the iPad and searched for it. $49.99. Um, OK. Look, I love you guys but that’s absurd. (And the reviews are pretty damning too.)

Eventually I found Freeform ($2.99 I think) which is a really good UI looking for a bit more functionality. All this program needs is some (better? any?) way to delete stuff, text blocks, rotate objects, snap to grid, precise beziers, gradient fill, arrows, and slightly better palette management (it’s quite good already) and it would be pretty much perfect.

Kindle

Amazon’s Kindle app for the iPad is free. So you can have your cake and eat it. Enough said. It’s missing some of iBooks’s sizzle (e.g. page-turn animations) and cleverness (e.g. adjustable brightness) but beats it on practical considerations (e.g. you can view books as white on black, which is handy if you’re reading in bed next to a sleeping spouse). It’s early days yet, but the iPad is already a better Kindle than the Kindle.

Numbers

Alone among the Apple offerings on the iPad, Numbers is kind of broken. Some of its quirks are simply infuriating. E.g. stretching a selection doesn’t fill the way it does in the desktop version (e.g. if you want to fill-right or fill-down with a formula), and exactly how scrolling works in grids has me mystified. Insofar as it works, it works quite well, but compared to Pages and Keynote it’s a very unpolished.

Pages

My big gripe with Pages is that you can’t modify styles, which is very annoying when you bring in a document and discover some style has been reassigned to an inappropriate font. There’s simply no way to say “make bullet paragraphs Times please”. Aside from that, it’s very well done. Unfortunately, I’m not running iWork 09 on my Macs yet, making it a bit of a pain for interoperability.

Speaking of which: the system for moving files to and from the iPad is horrible (I’m hardly the first to opine thus) and needs to be fixed. Also, when will I be able to drag a PDF onto my iPad (or download one) and read it in iBooks or some other built-in app? (Heck, Safari is pretty decent, but won’t explicitly download files.)

Which leads to:

GoodReader

I was pretty desperate to have a PDF viewer on the iPad and willing to pay anything up to… $0.99 as it happened. GoodReader is a solid app with a cluttered UI and a ridiculous number of features. You can send files to it wirelessly (it pretends to be a server) or use its built-in browser to navigate to pages containing PDFs and download them. (Again, can we please have a file system of some kind? Thanks.) The PDF viewing component is pretty decent, albeit cluttered and perversely pages “down” and “up” rather than “left” and “right” which is not only inconsistent with iBooks (with which the developer may not, at the time, have been familiar) but pretty annoying in general (I generally don’t have any fingers near the center-bottom of the screen when reading).

Note: I just updated my apps and the developer of Goodreader has acknowledged the page-turning issue and promised a fix imminently.

So, a pretty darn nice app (functionally speaking) wrapped in a slipshod UI.

Cat in the Hat & Seuss ABC

Aside from draining my iPad’s battery faster than any other app (including GTA: Chinatown Wars and Pocket Legends) I’ve tried, these are really very nicely done. You can have the books read themselves, read on demand, or read them yourself. If you touch objects the word “puffs” out of them and is spoken. If you touch the text it gets read aloud. And the drawings look incredibly sharp. Very, very nice stuff.

Doodle Buddy

I got this $0.99 (or was it $1.99) drawing app with stamps and sound effects for my twins, and they love it (a little too much). It’s essentially Kid Pix for the iPad (only better and insanely cheap).

JamPad

There are tons of apps like this out there, but this one was free with a $0.99 internal upgrade (darn I got suckered!). It’s a simple app that gives you a piano keyboard (good multitouch support, but no way to stop the keyboard from scrolling around as you play and no way to hit a note hard or soft), and the ability to play percussion and guitar backing tracks, or hit electric guitar chords. For a $0.99 it’s a fine musical “doodling” tool (well, it is for me — my father would probably wince were he alive to hear it).

Labyrinth Lite

I never bought the full version on the iPhone, although I liked the lite version well enough. The iPad version is prettier (beyond the extra screen real estate) and has almost too many gimmicks, but none of the free content is terribly compelling, nor does it seem to promise enough to hook me into paying. Lovely piece of software though.

Touchpad

Touchpad uses VNC to let your iPhone (and now iPad) act as a remote mouse/keyboard for any Mac running 10.6 (not sure if it works for 10.5, and not really bothered to find out given the immense upgrade cost). We’ve been using it on our iPads to control the Mac that drives the HD TV in our bedroom, and this just makes it more useful (especially since, on the iPhone, it’s a bit of a battery drain).

Pocket Legends

This MORPG  (it’s not massive, at least not yet, so just one M) deserves a review of its own. In almost every sense except perhaps the most important one this is a truly brilliant piece of work. The big problem is gameplay, which is 75% of the way there, but has no flaws that can’t fairly easily be addressed. A slightly lesser problem is a business model that appears to preclude trading items with friends (or anyone else).

Here are the salient features from my point of view:

  • It’s essentially instanced. Your character lives on a server, but games are essentially group-level or solo. So it’s more like Diablo than World of Warcraft. The one difference is you can go to “town” and experience the lag of lots of players all in one place spamming emotes.
  • The game architecture and base assumptions mean that you can play it as a single-player game, or just with friends, or you can just join random games and silently cooperate with strangers (you can chat in game but no-one seems to bother).
  • The business model is essentially Zynga but — I think — better. Instead of spending money on useless doohickeys or simply to gain a leg up on people who don’t waste money, you basically spend money to gain access to more content. This means you pay for what you do, not for how long you keep an account. (World of Warcraft is great value for people playing it 4h/day, but kind of a ripoff for casual players who only log on now and then. Why?) You can also spend real money to buy game money or special gear, but neither seems necessary. I approve.
  • The game itself is very simple. You touch the ground to move. You touch bad guys to target them. You attack enemies by touching an attack button or firing off an expensive special ability. There are three character options: archer (a bird thing who uses bows), mage (human girl), and warrior (a bear thing). The graphics are low poly but stylish, so if you like World of Warcraft’s aesthetic, you’ll probably like Legends. If not, not.
  • The content is also very simple. So far all I’ve seen have been simple mazes with monsters and treasure chests scattered around them. The monsters wander back and forth. The only real challenge in the game is pulling (getting single or small groups of monsters to attack you without drawing any of their friends to help), and it’s not much of a challenge.
  • It works pretty well, although lag can be terrible and sometimes things mysteriously won’t work (e.g. you can’t target a monster, or your wife’s mage’s spells don’t show up on your screen). It also took us quite a while to figure out how to loot chests (you point yourself near them facing towards them and attack).
  • You can’t trade items — which is particularly infuriating if the loot system allocates you a piece of loot your companion can use and you can’t.
  • There’s no sense of a “world”. Dungeons are small, flat mazes. You start at one end, go to the other, kill everything, and you’re done. This opens up the next dungeon. You don’t travel overland (except inside a “dungeon”). There’s no world map.

Anyway, it’s free and the stuff in-game is cheap (and we haven’t paid for anything yet). It’s mildly diverting, and it gives the iPad a coop game that doesn’t suck — which is no bad thing. I think I’ll try out Dungeon Hunter before I spend any money on Legends, though.

Tiny Freecell (iPhone)

The $0.99 iPhone solitaire game implements Freecell and Eight Off very nicely, and it works just dandy on my iPad (and looks great pixel-doubled). It hasn’t been updated in years, so I’m not holding my breath for a native iPad version.

GTA: Chinatown Wars (iPhone)

It hasn’t been updated to support the iPad yet, but the “glass joystick” works better on the iPad than the iPhone (more screen real estate, I think). Even so, I think this app really needs a more “native” interface.

iPad arrives

I am writing this post on my iPad — one of two we got this morning around 9am. According to the delivery guy each of six drivers in Tuscaloosa had about fifteen. If that’s a good sample — which it almost certainly isn’t — then about 0.1% of the US population took delivery of an iPad this morning.

I am touch typing (two fingered) on the glass keyboard. It’s just fine — but I did hit one snag. Safari didn’t recognize the standard word press editor as a text entry field, so I’m having to enter HTML directly.

More impressions later.

Battery Life

Aside: typing HTML with the iPad’s glass keyboard is an exercise in frustration — you need to switch between three keyboards four times to enter a single open heading. (Further aside: I am now going back through my iPad postings and fixing the paragraphs.)

I’ve been using my iPad solidly since it arrived, so around 3.5h, a lot of it in fairly demanding apps, and the battery is at 60% — having started at around 90% and refusing to charge when docked.

Edit: after being used much of the day and getting about 15 minutes of charger time (the iPad can only be charged via syncing to a “high power” USB slot, which seems not to include any USB slot I’ve tried) the iPad eventually got down to 30%. This morning I read for about 30 minutes using 3%.

Apps

I immediately bought Pages and Keynote. I’ll probably buy Numbers eventually, but I can think of no use for it right now. (I’d get Bento if it had export options to something other than the desktop bento for which I have zero use.)

Both are what you expect although perhaps missing a cherished feature or two. What I’m really missing on the iPad right now is some kind of file system — as I’ll discuss below.

I also got Alias Autodesk Sketchbook Pro which is based on a program originally written for tablet PCs. Brushes on the iPhone was painful to use — I never produced a single picture with it of which I was especially proud. My first two attempts with Sketchbook were decent, and I tried to upload one to this blog entry — so far no dice. (I’ve since bought a $0.99 app called Art Studio which is technically inferior to Autodesk’s product, but better thought out UI-wise.)

Similarly I can’t download PDFs — although they do render beautifully in Safari.

Of the built in apps — I’ll include iBooks in this category — Mail is a joy (although I understand gmail on the iPad is wonderful too), iBooks is great, although many of the Gutenberg titles are a mess until you get past the cruft at the beginning, and the others are ok.

The photos app and origami slideshow option are simply breathtaking. This is pretty much the best way to look at photographs.

On the down side, I find calendar’s inability to create events when I tap in a particular date/time to be infuriating. Lots of room for tweaking.

There are several Dr Seuss books in the app store — I bought two, and the only down side is they seem to chew through batteries super fast… Flash? Or just poorly coded?

Ergonomics

I’ve already discussed the keyboard quite a bit. The only real issue with the glass keyboard — in either orientation — for me is the business of getting to special characters. If I were typing a novel, say, it wouldn’t be a big deal (especially with the smart correction handling most apostrophes, etc), but typing email addresses and HTML tags is a serious nuisance.
(Once you have one heading or whatever typed, copy and paste mostly solves the problem. Also, last night I discovered that ?123-Z is the Undo key (“?123” is a very cumbersome name for a modifier key, and somewhat misleading when the “?” is available via “shift-.”)

As a book reader, and I haven’t tried reading anything serious yet, it weighs less than a hardcover novel and can be held at angles a book cannot owing to not having pages to worry about. E.g. I find reading lying down with the iPad propped on my chest very comfortable, but could never read a book like this because I’d have to hold the pages still.

Just as I was getting used to drawing with my fingers, I encountered an Apple store employee using a capacitative stylus which seemed to work pretty well. Maybe I’ll try one for drawing.

Numbers, Revisited

OK, here’s my second opinion on iWork ’08. It’s incredibly good, just frustratingly imperfect.

As I think I mentioned, I have two “killer documents” that I try to work with in every word processor and spreadsheet that comes along. The document is a complete set of role-playing rules, featuring complex table styles and cross-references.

Pages comes so close to handling this well I can taste it, but not quite there yet. Still, the only program to ever handle this document gracefully has been Adobe Framemaker (formerly just Framemaker). It’s kind of hard to complain that a simple word processor aimed at folks writing family newsletters to send out at Christmas can’t handle a long, hideously complex document effortlessly.

Second, Numbers is annoyingly missing some features such as multiple heading rows and vertical or angled column headings that would just be thrilling, but I’ve managed to use it to implement a working character sheet (as in fully automated) in about two hours, and rewrite my entire magic system (including 300 or so mix-and-match spells) in a couple of afternoons. Not too shabby.

I might note that Word and Excel are equally flawed in their handling of both documents, harder to use, and quite a bit pricier. Oh and slower and not yet Universal Binary.

iWork ’08 > I wish I liked it

As usual with Apple products, there are lots of reflexively pro- and anti- reviews. Most of the reviews focus on Pages, because Keynote is so obviously the best presentation program around that there’s no point even discussing it, and the vast majority of people don’t use spreadsheets for anything serious.

I’ve got a few documents lying around that have been through every word processor or spreadsheet option there’s ever been. My pons asinorum for word-processing is the ForeSight rule book, a horribly complex document featuring large, complex tables, graphical diagrams, indexes, cross-referencing, footnotes, margin notes, and more. The only programs that have ever come close to dealing with it are (in order of best to worst) FrameMaker, Microsoft Word, and Fullwrite Professional. The first thing I did after installing iWork ’08 was import ForeSight in its latest incarnation from an Word (2004) .doc. It imported almost without a hitch (it warned me that some of Word’s more esoteric formating options aren’t supported) but after working with it briefly in Pages I am inclined to persist with Word.

My equivalent document for spreadsheets is an interactive ForeSight character sheet which does all your book-keeping for you automagically (in essence, a freeform modeless character creation tool). I’ve never managed to build one of these without failing to implement some of the rules, but the closest I’ve gotten has been using FileMaker Pro. I built the character tool from scratch in Numbers in about two hours: by far the easiest implementation I’ve ever managed thanks to the nice way it handles tables, but the irony is that Numbers fails on the cosmetic front! (Not that FileMaker Pro, Excel, Wingz, or Claris Resolve did better cosmetically, but given Numbers’s close relationship to Keynote, it amazes me how little attention its layout functions have received. For example, you can drag out ruler guides into your sheet, but they’re always editable, so it’s impossible to drag a table edge that’s near one of them — you always end up hosing your guide.

The table implementations in Pages, Keynote, and Numbers are similar, but subtly different, which is infuriating on its own. Pages has excellent stylesheets which work very badly with tables. Numbers has table styles, but they don’t translate to Pages. They also have some mysterious limitations and odd behaviors. E.g. if you copy and paste cells, format moves with them, even into headers. I ended up copy stuff to TextWrangler, then copying it out of TextWrangler back to Pages to clear formating. Header cells can’t include calculations or be included in calculations. You can only have one header, footer, and side-header row. If you a column or row contains merged cells, it can’t be hidden (and it’s not clear why; it took me ages to figure out what was going on).

But what really annoys me about Numbers, what is truly egregious, is that the metrics of tables are non-deterministic. I built a custom table style, and then put two identically styled tables side-by-side. Guess what, their rows don’t line up. I cannot figure out how to fix this and it’s annoying as hell. I’ve read here and there rants about certain aspects of Cocoa’s graphics being utterly, deeply, and profoundly broken, and this appears to be an example of it.

On the whole, I’d rate Keynote as being as awesome as ever, Pages as being nice for casual stuff but broken for anything really complex, and Numbers as being great for casual stuff but limited.