iWork for the iPhone: Numbers

It’s Productivity Week here at iPhone.AppStorm, and all week we’re going to have app reviews and how-tos, all based on getting things done. Plus, we’ll even pull some classic reviews out of the archives. Stay tuned all week!

The Apple iWork suite is a popular purchase for Mac buyers, and once the iPad versions came out, they became almost standard buys. But it wasn’t until relatively recently that it became available for the iPhone, and now all Apple platforms have the ability to manipulate and edit documents on the go.

In our second of this three-series installment, we’re going to take a look at Numbers, the spreadsheet application that’s part of the iWork suite. Sure, you can make spreadsheets on your iPhone, but do you really want to? We’ll take a look at the app and how it can work into your daily workflow after the jump.

Big Versus Small

The purpose of a spreadsheet, at its core, is to organize a group of items. Maybe you want to make a shopping list for the weekend’s annual trip to the grocery store, or possibly you’re building a mammoth tax/sales chart that goes company wide tomorrow. When building a spreadsheet in Numbers for the Mac, you’ve got lots of real estate to work with, and building a complex and layered spreadsheet is fairly straightforward. Is it that easy on the iPhone?

Opening docs and inserting images from your iPhone's camera is simple and quick.

Opening docs and inserting images from your iPhone's camera is simple and quick.

In a word, no. But then again, why would it be? You’re working with a screen that’s got substantially less viewing area, and the bigger the spreadsheet, the more room you need to work with. As if that wasn’t tough enough, there is no landscape mode option when editing. So if the time comes to type out a long string of numbers or a big paragraph, you’re stuck in portrait mode. That’s a pain.

So What Is It Good For?

The way I see it, Numbers for the iPhone isn’t made for creation — at least, not completely. I started to think about scenarios where people would want or need to edit a spreadsheet with their iPhone, and they all fell into the “emergency” category. You’re running late for a meeting and just need to update that spreadsheet real quick, but you don’t have your laptop handy. You’re on a bus, and you want to add a quick piece to your document for a reminder. I just don’t know why you’d want to build an entire spreadsheet from scratch on the iPhone — it just wouldn’t be efficient.

All of the standard charts and graphs are available on the iPhone.

All of the standard charts and graphs are available on the iPhone.

That said, that emergency category is a pretty big deal. Having the ability to fix a mistake or make additions to a spreadsheet while still being completely mobile is a huge step forward than not having it at all. For some, it could be the difference between keeping a job and getting fired.

But You Can Create Still, Right?

Although it may seem like I’m getting down on the app, yes, it is still possible to build a spreadsheet from scratch using your iPhone, it just isn’t a ton of fun. But if you use one of the built-in templates, than the process becomes substantially easier.

Viewing and editing documents on the iPhone.

Viewing and editing documents on the iPhone.

Some of the templates are almost designed for iPhone use, with zoomed-in tables and forms that are easy to navigate without having to zoom in frequently. If you’re starting in that position, just filling in the forms are substantially quicker, and some might even prefer to do it on the iPhone. No, it’s still not as fast as a keyboard and mouse, but it’s your iPhone — did you expect the physics to change?

iCloud and Syncing

Although it’s not out yet officially, iCloud will take this app up to the next level. One of the key features in iCloud is the ability to sync your documents across iOS devices, although it’s not quite clear yet whether the Mac versions of the iWork suite will share the same functionality. Assuming they do, then suddenly Numbers for the iPhone becomes very relevant indeed and that emergency scenario could now play out a dozen different ways.

Sharing and printing files.

Sharing and printing files.

You’re at the office, and running down the hall to the conference room where you have to present a spreadsheet to the board. Oh snap! You forgot to print the spreadsheet! To the iPhone you go, and you print out the doc right from there. This is just one option, but iCloud could truly make the entire iWork suite more popular on all iOS platforms.

There is one exception here, and that’s for current MobileMe subscribers. You can access your iDisk via Numbers today, which means that you can get documents on the go if necessary. It’s still not as easy as iCloud should be, but it’s an option, as is a WebDAV file.

What’s Left?

It seems like I’ve been a bit hard on Numbers, but really, I do like the app — enough that it warranted a review. It’s not my preferred way to build a spreadsheet, but it’s certainly a good way to access my files on the go. And better yet, you can integrate images into your spreadsheets taken directly from your iPhone, making it easy to personalize your docs. That’s a handy feature to have.

But really, one of the reasons I like Numbers as much as I do is that it’s saved my butt a few times. Once I needed an invoice on the go, and I was able to create one relatively quickly using just my iPhone. Another time I wanted to notate some work mileage, and having the app on hand saved me time in the long run. And then there was the time I had to make a change to a spreadsheet quickly, and it was all right there for me. Again, handy.

Final Thoughts

So is this the best app in the iWork suite? No, but really, there wasn’t much of a chance it would beat Pages for ease of use just because of the nature of the program. Spreadsheets can be tough, and Numbers makes it as simple as possible to work with. Ultimately, t’s just like riding a bike uphill. You know you can do it, but if you had access to something easier, wouldn’t you just use that?

Once iCloud goes live and Mac document syncing is included then I think that this will become a must-have for number crunchers everywhere. But until then, it’s definitely handy to have when you need it, but not completely necessary for most people.


Edit and make spreadsheets on your iPhone with Numbers.