There have been days when I’ve filed an article, closed my office and gone on a long weekend. Sometimes, though, just after setting off, I’ve received a call saying that my usual editor’s away and could I send my copy to her assistant, or could I rewrite it to take in some late news, or that I’m not allowed to say, “Right about now, Palm is about as embarrassed as that ‘lady’ athlete who was caught smuggling plums.”.

Were it not for my ASUS Seashell netbook, I’d have to turn round and go home to do the edits. The thing is, though, I’d like to be able to leave behind my netbook and do the edits on my iPhone. So my question is, why doesn’t Apple make a version of iWork for the iPhone?

I guess the answer is because the iPhone has built-in viewers for the whole suite (docs, spreadsheets and presentations), and having actual desktop-style creation and editing tools on a computer the size of a Jacob’s cracker is blatantly absurd.

Fair points. But a mobile context implies a special set of needs. I don’t want to write a book on my iPhone; what I want is the means to edit, to throw yesterday’s work into the phone so I can proof it later and tighten things. Ditto for spreadsheets. Those who pray at the Temple of Numerology don’t need to balance the country’s budget on a phone, but they do want to plug in some numbers and peform some calculations.

And the survey says...
Over the past month, I’ve carried out a survey of Office-style software on the App Store. Call it Andy’s Lowered Expectations Tour. I was disappointed that I couldn’t find an app in any category that released epic amounts of seratonin into my system and made me forget that the only certainty in life is the yawning grave that awaits us all.

Nonetheless, there were highlights such as Spreadsheet by Softalk Limited (www.softalkltd.com). This offers the best combination of: 1) likelihood that it would be able to open and run any given workbook; 2) ability to move data in and out of the device; 3) a user interface that doesn’t look like it was designed by mice. It’s a nice app, with failings. Formatting and navigation are clumsy and the buttons are sometimes tiny. You can’t count on being able to open a certain spreadsheet. These are faults common to the entire breed.

A database isn’t necessarily part of an Office suite, but it’s a key thing to have on an iPhone. Much of my personal and business data is managed by databases, and a custom data-collection tool is most useful when you’re in the field and unexpectly need to collect data. An app like this means that I can consult my comix collection while I’m at a show, and dynamically create a database of all of the artists I’d like to commission, complete with table numbers and prices.

This category is more or less filled by Bento and HanDBase. Bento (www.filemaker.com/bento) is the hands-down winner: it’s an iPhone version of a Mac database app and is one of the most iPhone-like apps on the App Store. If you run your life with Bento, this offers quick and natural movement of data from the desktop to the handheld, and it’s also a fine standalone database.

But HanDBase (www.ddhsoftware.com) is a hands-down winner, too, if that makes sense. If Bento is the best app for people who use the desktop app (or people with simple needs in an iPhone database), HanDBase is for those who need a more conventional desktop-style database, or need to move databases from apps that weren’t made by FileMaker. It’s clumsy, for sure, but it has the horsepower.

Just say the Word
We now come to the most important category from my perspective: word processing. There are no word processors available for the iPhone. Please don’t try to argue. There are some lame word processors and some great ‘notes’ apps. But there are no apps that are suited to serious editing of documents, or to jotting down several hundred words of formatted copy, which you can then pass to somebody who can put it to use.

But the dream of leaving my netbook behind endures, so I keep Alfons Schmid’s Notebooks handy (www.alfonsschmid.com). The name is deceptive. It would take just a nudge to upgrade this mega-notes app into the word-processor category. Notebooks imports Word files with the formatting intact and offers a writing and editing environment that’s probably as good as you’re going to get on a keyboardless device with a tiny screen.

Its import and export features are sumptuous, and it can handle any of the emergencies for which I use my netbook. If I sync my files onto it, I can make an edit and email it to an editor as an attachment. Or I can write a full article and submit it.

Most brilliantly, when my book editor has finished working on the chapter I submitted, she drops the file in my iDisk public folder, I collect it straight from Notebooks, make the changes, and send it back to her without moving from my chair or even necessarily putting down my margarita.

So there you have it – three solutions to working with Office-style docs and data, which are all short of ideal. Which brings me back to my question: is it time that Apple created an iPhone edition of iWork? A single, ‘reference’ release that could send the message “the iPhone is a hardworking computer, not just a way to watch episodes of The Wire while you’re on the train.”

It’d upset the developer community. But hey, Apple was going to do that anyway. Besides, I’m thinking more along the lines of Apple buying the best apps and giving the developers the resources to move their apps from ‘useful’ to ‘essential’, under the Apple logo. These kinds of apps should be essential. Apple didn’t leave email and a web browser as an “opportunity for third-party developers”. They were too important. Elevating Office apps to the same status is worth considering.

There’s also the troubling fact that there are great Office suites for other phones. When the topic is “Office software for a Blackberry” the answer is “There’s an app for that”. When the subject moves to the iPhone, you need to add “…more or less”. That’s the clincher. Whether the great Office apps are published independently or as an Apple product, we need ‘em – if for no other reason that there are great ones for other smartphones. And envy in an iPhone user is a pathetic thing to see.