Pages 3.0: What needs to be fixed

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Pages
September 19th, 2008 • 6:00 pm

Now that iWork ’08 has been out for over a year, it is time to take stock and review the main outstanding issues with Pages 3.0 that prevent it from really being used as a substitute for Microsoft Word in almost all situations—at least as far as I am concerned.

What follows is a list of the most important issues. I also have a long list of more minor issues, but what appears below is a list of the issues that have the greatest impact on my work and prevent me from completely eliminating my reliance on Microsoft Word except in the most extreme situations.

1. Fix the ‘Keep with following paragraph’ option

The “Keep with following paragraph” option (in the text inspector, under “More”) is vital for ensuring that headings or paragraphs that need to stay together stay together at all times and are never separated from each other by an automatic page break.

It is the equivalent of the “Keep with next” option in Microsoft Word. Adobe InDesign has a more advanced setting that lets you control how far inside the following paragraph the automatic page break must go (with a “Keep with Next XX lines” setting). But really, all I am asking for in Pages is something equivalent to the “Keep with next” option in Microsoft Word.

Unfortunately, the “Keep with following paragraph” option in Pages suffers from one major flaw that does not affect the “Keep with next” option in Microsoft Word: it fails to work properly when applied to two or more consecutive paragraphs.

For example, if I have a first-level heading immediately followed by a second-level heading immediately followed by a paragraph of text, I don’t want an automatic page break either between the second-level heading and the paragraph of text or between the first-level heading and the second-level heading:

Heading 1

Heading 2

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In order to prevent this from happening, I apply the “Keep with following paragraph” option to both the first-level heading and the second-level heading (in their style definitions). Alas, when the option is applied to two consecutive paragraphs, Pages fails to ensure that it always works for both. It only prevents the second one from being separated from the following paragraph of text, but it still allows an automatic page break to be inserted between the first one and the second one.

This is clearly unacceptable. It is a very simple, basic requirement for structuring “smart” documents that will be paginated properly. I simply should not have to insert a manual page break before the first-level heading just to ensure that it stays with the second-level heading on the next page!

I reported this bug a long time ago, and it still isn’t fixed in Pages 3.0.2. If Apple is serious about making Pages an acceptable Microsoft Word alternative, it simply has to fix this bug now.

It also needs to extend this functionality so that it works for table rows as well. When composing Pages documents with large tables that span several pages, sometimes the user requires that specific sections of the table stay together. This is not the same as using a header row that is repeated on every page. Sometimes tables have subsections that need to stay together, and unfortunately there is no way to prevent Pages from inserting an automatic page break between two table rows, period. The “Keep with following paragraph” option does not work at all for table rows. (It is greyed out when table rows are selected.)

Again, this is something that Microsoft Word has supported for years. You can apply the “Keep with next” formatting option to a table row, and this will prevent Microsoft Word from inserting an automatic page break between that row and the next one. They will always stay together.

Microsoft Word fails to respect the “Keep with next” formatting option inside table cells, however. If a single table cell contains several paragraphs of text and you have used the table formatting option to “allow row to break across pages,” Word considers that this allows it to break the row anywhere inside the cell, regardless of the “keep” options applied to individual paragraphs inside the cell.

Pages avoids this altogether by failing to provide an option to allow table row to break across pages at all. In Pages, either your table row fits in the current page, or it moves to the next page in its entirety. This makes it difficult to use tables for page layout purposes in Pages, and to use large tables in Pages in general. Combined with the lack of a “Keep with following row” option for table rows, this makes for pretty weak support for tables in Pages.

This brings me to my second major issue with Pages 3.0.

2. Fix the table editing features

There are a number of issues with the table editing tools in Pages. In my view, the most important ones have to do with text selection.

As indicated in a previous post, Apple’s engineers made a very poor design choice when they chose the keyboard shortcuts for adding rows and columns to tables. These keyboard shortcuts (option-shift-Up, option-shift-Down, option-shift-Left and option-shift-Right)) happen to be the exact same ones as the ones used for extending a text selection word by word to the left or to the right, or line by line to the top or to the bottom!

For word processor users like myself, who use keyboard shortcuts for text navigation and text selection (instead of the mouse) all the time, this is a major problem. There is simply no way that I can remember not to use these shortcuts when editing text in tables, when I am so accustomed to using them when editing text outside tables.

So I use them all the time in tables, and this means that I keep unwillingly adding rows or columns to my tables, which I then have to immediately undo in order to bring my tables back to their initial state. I find it simply insulting on the part of Apple’s engineers that they have chosen these particular shortcuts with a total disregard for the needs of word processor users who use keyboard shortcuts for text navigation and text selection all the time.

And Apple’s engineers have made things even worse by hijacking the keyboard shortcuts even when editing multiple paragraphs of text inside a table cell. See, the keyboard shortcuts for extending the selection word by word to the left or to the right actually still work as expected if your current selection does not extend to the left or right edge of the table cell. In other words, if your selection or insertion point is in the middle of a line of text in a table cell, you can use option-shift-Left and option-shift-Right to extend the selection to the left or right, provided that you don’t extend the selection all the way to the beginning or the end of the line.

If you do go too far, and accidentally hit the keyboard shortcut one time too many, then the meaning of the keyboard shortcut switches to adding columns to the left or to the right of the current column. This is a perfect illustration of how idiotic it was of Apple’s engineers to choose the same shortcuts for both functions. Because of course the text selection shortcuts will unavoidably need to be used repeatedly (in order to add multiple words to the selection), and therefore it is unavoidable that the user will occasionally “overshoot” by hitting the shortcut keys too many times.

Outside tables, this is not a problem, since you can just revert the direction (i.e. change the cursor key) to remove the extra words that you’ve accidentally added to your selection. But you cannot do that in a table cell. In a table cell, if you overshoot, Pages adds table columns, and the only way to undo this is to switch to the “Undo” command, which is of course a totally different shortcut.

Worse still, this dual function of the keyboard shortcuts does not apply to the option-shift-Up and option-shift-Down shortcuts. For those shortcuts, regardless of how many paragraphs of text you have in your table cell and of where your current selection or insertion point is, the effect of the shortcuts will be to add rows above or below the current row. You cannot use these shortcuts for adding lines to the current selection at all, even if you are nowhere near the top or bottom of the cell.

This is clearly a bug, because the same thing does not apply to tables in Numbers 1.0 or Keynote 4.0, where the same shortcuts can be used to extend the selection line by line to the top or to the bottom of a cell, and they only switch to their other function (adding rows) when you reach the top or bottom edge of the cell. But in Pages, even that (which is bad enough) does not work.

The whole thing is a total mess. How many times do you actually need to use a keyboard shortcut to add rows or columns to a table—compared to the number of times you’d like to be able to use a keyboard shortcut to extend your text selection inside a table cell? For regular users of keyboard selection shortcuts, there is no comparison. Adding rows or columns is something that you have to do only very occasionally, and you can very well survive without having shortcuts for it—or at least with having shortcuts that might be a bit less obvious or more complex. Apple’s engineers could have used command-option-shift-Up, command-option-shift-Down, command-option-shift-Left, and command-option-shift-Right for adding rows and columns. These shortcuts are not used for anything else, and wouldn’t conflict with text selection shortcuts at all.

This is a very poor design choice, and unfortunately it is impossible for the user to change these shortcuts, because they are hard-wired in the application and not editable through the “Keyboard Shortcuts” tab in System Preferences.

In Pages 3.0, the table editing tools also suffer from another major bug, which is that, when you are in the process of editing the content of a table cell, every time you hit command-S to save your document, Pages exits the text editing mode and reverts to selecting the table cell as a whole. Which means that, if you resume your typing immediately after hitting command-S, Pages actually reselects the entire content of the cell and replaces it with what you are typing now. Argh!

If you want to avoid this, the only solution is either to refrain from saving your document while you are editing a table altogether (and pray that the application will not crash!) or to manually move the insertion point back to where it was inside the cell before you hit command-S. What a pain!

Again, I reported this bug a long time ago, and it is still not fixed. This was actually a new bug in Pages 3.0 (in iWork ’08), which just makes the experience of editing table cells in Pages even worse.

Finally, Pages suffers from really poor performance levels when editing really large tables. There is a noticeable lag between your typing and the appearance of the letters on the screen, and it is very distracting and frustrating.

If you add all this to the missing features mentioned above (keep with next and allow row to break), it makes for a pretty poor overall table editing experience in Pages. This definitely needs to be fixed if Pages is to compete with Microsoft Word as a word processor.

3.0 Add page layout options

There are two major things missing in Pages which Microsoft Word provides. One is the ability to change the number of text columns inside a page. Pages does let you change the number of columns, but only from one section to the next, and Pages does not let you switch sections in the middle of a page. Inserting a section break automatically starts a new page. There is no such thing as a “Continuous Section Break” option in Pages.

This is highly unfortunate, because column layouts are not always used for entire pages. For example, I frequently have to interrupt the flow of a single column document to insert a long list of short items. Since the list items are all short, I could lay out the list so that it is presented in 2 or 3 or 4 columns. This is impossible to do in Pages, unless I use an invisible table instead.

Given the poor quality of the table editing tools mentioned above, this is not really a solution. Besides, using an invisible table for a multi-column layout provides no option to automatically balance the columns so that they all have the same length.

The other major page layout option that is missing in Pages is the able to use different page orientations for different sections in the same document. Page orientation is simply not an option in the section inspector. The only way to change the page orientation is through the “Page Setup” dialog box, and that applies to the entire document, not just to the current section.

I frequently get Microsoft Word documents from other people that I have to edit and that contain page orientation changes from section to section. As soon as I open such documents in Pages, the word processor unilaterally changes the page orientation to portrait for all sections—and it does not even warn me about it! Normally, Pages displays a warning dialog when you open Microsoft Word documents that contain features that Pages does not support. But in that case, Pages displays no warning, even though it’s a pretty major page layout issue that is at stake here!

This is clearly unacceptable, and I am afraid the only solution here is for Apple to add support for page orientation changes within a document. If Microsoft Word supports them, then Pages has to support them.

4.0 Provide professional-level style sheet features

When Pages 1.0 first came out, I was pleased with the fact that styles (paragraph styles, character styles, and bullet styles) were given a more prominent place in the user interface (with the styles drawer) than they ever were in Microsoft Word. (To this day, Microsoft Word is incapable of displaying both the character style and the paragraph style of the current selection at the same time in the UI, even when the current selection has both a character style and a paragraph style.)

Unfortunately, I was soon disappointed with the limitations of Pages’ style sheet features. The two main limitations were the lack of hierarchical styles (the ability to define styles based on other styles) and the lack of customizable keyboard shortcuts for styles.

In subsequent versions of Pages, Apple only addressed the latter issue, and then only partially, by adding the ability to assign the F1 to F8 shortcuts to styles on a per-document basis. This is woefully insufficient, because this gives you only a maximum of 8 shortcuts for all your styles, and there is no way to assign shortcuts that are easier to memorize, such as shortcuts based on the initials of the styles’ names. I typically use way more than 8 styles in my documents. (Remember: this includes all three types of styles: paragraph styles, character styles, and bullet styles.)

The F1 to F8 shortcuts are better than nothing, but they are simply not enough.

As for hierarchical styles, there has been no improvement. Pages’ efforts to keep the creation and editing of style definitions simple (without resorting to the atrocious type of interface provided by Microsoft Word) are laudable, but it should not come at the expense of such essential functionality. The beauty of Pages (in other aspects) is that it manages to provide professional-level word processor features through a streamlined and simple interface (as opposed to the one provided by Microsoft in Word). But in that case the simplicity comes at the expense of what is for a number of professional word processor users a fairly essential feature.

5.0 Fix the Find/Replace dialog

The Find/Replace feature is a pretty important feature in a word processor. When you are working with large documents, you need to be able to do batch operations reliably. In that respect, Pages’ Find/Replace fails miserably.

First of all, it provides no option to limit a Find/Replace operation to the current selection. It is all or nothing. If you want to find or replace something, the operation applies to the entire document, regardless of what your current selection is.

This means that, for example, if I have a table of currency amounts that are written using an English format (such as $1,234.56) and I want to change them all to the French format (1 234,56 $), I have no way to change the commas to spaces and the periods to commas in that table only. If I try to change the commas to spaces with a “Replace All” operation, Pages changes the commas to spaces in my entire document!

The only solution here is to copy and paste the table in question in a separate document, do the “Replace All” operation there, and then copy and paste the table back into the main document. How elegant!

The other dismal aspect of the Find/Replace dialog box is that it is totally screwed when it comes to curly apostrophes. Pages is simply incapable of finding a string that contains a curly apostrophe. As noted in a previous post, if you have a string such as “Patricia’s friend” (with a curly apostrophe) in your document, and you try to search for it with Pages’ Find/Replace dialog, the search will return zero results.

Pages is only capable of finding occurrences using a straight apostrophe, even when the apostrophe used in the “Find” field is curly! Of course, this means that it is completely impossible to replace all occurrences of straight apostrophes with curly apostrophes, for example. This is a shocking flaw in a word processor.

And it is even worse in French, where there are a great number of contracted forms, such as l’, qu’, c’, etc. All these forms are basically completely incompatible with Pages’ Find/Replace feature, which fails to recognize the words that follow such contracted forms as actual words. Oops.

I also find it very irritating that Pages is incapable of remembering user-specified settings in the Find/Replace dialog from one session to the next. Each time you quit and relaunch Pages, the application reverts to the default settings in the Find/Replace dialog. By default, I need the “loop” setting to be off, i.e. I don’t want Pages to automatically start again from the beginning of a document once the Find/Replace feature has reached the end of the document.

Because Pages keeps switching back to the default settings, including a “loop” setting that is on, I constantly have to switch back to the “Advanced” tab and turn it off again. It is quite tiring and irritating.

Of course, Pages’ Find/Replace also has no support for regular expressions or any kind of “wild cards.” And its options for finding and replacing text formatting are woefully limited. They only support automatic styles that are in use in the document. This means that it is impossible to search for occurrences of strings manually formatted in bold and replace the manual formatting with an automatic “Emphasis” character style, for example. Pages’ Find/Replace dialog assumes that your documents are well designed with automatic styles to begin with, which, in my experience, is almost never the case for Word documents that I receive from other people and have to work with.

All this adds up to a very disappointing Find/Replace feature. It really seems that Apple’s engineers have not bothered to try and use this feature in the real world, with real-world word processing documents. I could understand these limitations in a 1.0 version of the product, but we are now at 3.0, and there has been zero progress.

6.0 Provide proper page-by-page scrolling

This is one long-standing pet peeve of mine. Why on earth is it impossible for word processor designers to provide users with the ability to jump from page to page in a document without the scrolling going off after a few pages and showing the end of one page and the beginning of the next one in the window?

Pages does not have multiple view modes like Microsoft Word, and I have no problems with that in principle. But then, if I choose as a document zoom setting the “Fit Page” option, which shows me an entire page in the document window, why is it that after I have pressed Page Down a few times Pages is showing the end of one page and the beginning of the next one, with the page separation right in the middle of my window?

It really is ridiculous that, after all these years, we still don’t have the basic ability to scroll up and down a document page by page without things going off kilter after a few pages!

For the record, Word’s “Page Layout” view mode, or whatever it’s called these days, still suffers from the exact same problem, but at least Microsoft provides a “Print Preview” view mode that actually enables the user to scroll the document page by page. Amazing!

In Pages, the only option is to preview the document in the Preview application, i.e. as a PDF file. There really should be a built-in ability to scroll a document page by page, shouldn’t it? Why doesn’t the “Fit Page” zoom setting fill this requirement?


This is by no means a complete list of all the things that need to be fixed in Apple’s Pages application. But it is a list of the issues that, in my view, are the most significant and pose the biggest challenges for people attempting to use Pages as an alternative to Microsoft Word, i.e. as a professional-quality word processor.

If Pages were missing tons of other professional-level features, I would not have written such a post. It is, after all, only an “iApp,” i.e. by name a consumer-level application, not a professional-level application.

But the reality is that, behind its streamlined user interface, Pages is actually powerful enough to pretend to be a Microsoft Word competitor in many situations. I already use it as my main word processor, and I am a professional user. But I cannot use it all the time, mostly because of the issues described above.

I also believe that all these issues could and should be fixed without adding undue complexity to the software. Apple does not necessarily have to develop a separate, professional-level application—although I obviously wouldn’t mind if they did, if only to fill the void left by the discontinuation of FrameMaker.

Microsoft Word, especially in its current incarnation (Word 2008), is a horrible piece of junk. It’s slow, it crashes, it’s full of bugs, and there really is no hope of Microsoft ever getting its act together. Apple really could compete with it and, in my line of work at least, offer Pages as a realistic alternative in most situations. But first it would really need at least to address the major issues listed above.

Sadly, there is little sign of Apple actually taking this seriously enough. New versions of Pages are few and far between, and systematically bring far fewer improvements than hoped, with a kind of schizophrenic hesitation between professional-level and consumer-level improvements that is ultimately very unsatisfactory and frustrating. I sincerely hope that this will change soon, and that there will be an iWork ’09 that brings valuable improvements while retaining the existing strengths of the current version of the software.

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