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Getting Work Done Online - Presentation

Editor's note: This weeks article is brought to you by Wesley Allen. Wes is an expert in presentation technologies and the creator of a technique called "Sermon Painting" which gives pastors more effective tools to integrate media into their teaching ministries.

In this article I'll be comparing three web-based presentation applications — Google Presentations, PowerPoint on SkyDrive, and the beta of Apple's Keynote in the cloud. Yes, Keynote is a beta, but this series is including it because Apple is more than fashionably late to idea of cloud-base office suites. There are other options out on the web, including ZoHo office and Prezi, but we're limiting ourselves to the threes suites compared throughout this series.

User Interface

User Interfaces in web-apps has come a long way over the years. As the web has matured web apps have begun feel like applications, instead of forms forced into a browser interface. As such, the three presentation applications I tested all have their own feel, each with strengths and weaknesses.

The newest of the three, iWork in the Cloud, has the most minimalist design. A dark toolbar runs along the top of the UI, containing some very basic features. From this toolbar a presentation can be "played," different objects can be inserted, and various tools (such as sharing) can be accessed. Along the right of the screen is a persistent inspector, which changes it's content depending on which slide object is selected. The bulk of the screen contains the slide editor, with thumbnails of slides appearing on the left edge of the screen. It's simple, and it works. There is a noticeable amount of empty space on the toolbar, which may lead one to assume Apple is planning on adding more features in the future. This may be true, but the layout echoes the layout of desktop Keynote, so I wouldn't hold my breath. Given the resolutions of today's screens, the empty space actually makes the UI look clean.

Google Presentations are laid out in a similar fashion to Keynote, minus the persistent inspector on the right side of the screen. A huge slide palette takes up the most space, and a toolbar runs along the top edge of the UI, containing many more buttons than Keynote. Google's toolbar adds separate buttons for drawing lines, background, layout, and theme. It also has a button to add comments to the presentation. The layout is clean, but it does feel a bit dated, harkening back to the grey toolbars filled with the simple icons of yesteryear. Even so, the single-click access to multiple features makes Google Presentations a great option.

If the first two applications try for simplicity when it comes to UI design, Office Live seems to take the "let's see how much we can put on the screen at once" approach. The result is a cluttered mess. It's basic layout is similar to the first two applications — consisting of a toolbar on top, a slide editing palette taking up the bulk of the screen, as well as slide thumbnails along the left edge. The toolbar is where PowerPoint fails. Office has, for some time, used a "ribbon" interface which changes the toolbar completely depending on what task you want to accomplish, it's a UI design which they bring into the Office Live version of PowerPoint. Some people enjoy the ribbon, I am not one of them. The sheer amount of options crammed into each ribbon section is absurd. There simply is no reason to squeeze that many buttons all over the top edge of the screen. It makes it difficult to find features, and painful to use the ones you are able to find. Office Live fixes some of the more terrible design flaws of the ribbon's desktop version (such as changing a slide layout or adding effects to an image), but the layout remains a cluttered mess.

Of the three applications, I think Keynote nailed the User Interface. It's clean, fast, and uncluttered. Google Presentations is a very close second, as it makes finding options one click away, and the toolbar never changes as you change tasks (PowerPoint) or objects (the Keynote inspector).

Slide Layout and Theming

Each of the applications comes with the ability to theme a presentation. The themes in both PowerPoint and Google Presentations, however, are rather simple and less than eye-catching. Keynote's presentations are stunning, actually the same batch which are available in it's iOS offering, and can make for some attention grabbing presentations when used. Once a theme is chosen in Keynote, however, the presentation cannot be shifted to another theme – this is a significant drawback.

Each application comes with the basic pre-set slide layouts — title, title and bullets, title an image/object, etc. It's a simple matter to create a slide with a new layout in each application, though in Keynote right clicking a slide preview and select "new slide" will create a slide with the same layout as the currently selected slide. Changing a slide layout is not currently possible in Keynote, but is a relatively simple matter in the other two applications. Google Presentations is the easiest tool with which to master this feature simply because it's UI is easier to navigate.

Customizing themes isn't possible in any of the offerings, though customizing slides with custom backgrounds is available in Google Presentations (custom backgrounds may then be applied to every slide in the presentation). Additionally, presentations cannot change aspect ratios. PowerPoint is stuck in a forward-thinking 16:9 ratio, while the others sport the classic 4:3.

If you are a custom designer, none of these applications is really going to appeal to you. Both SkyDrive and Keynote can import their native file-types and Keynote, at least, will retain custom theme-ing information (including aspect ratio and slide layouts) when imported, though fonts will be limited to those used in iOS.

Being a custom designer, the limitations in these applications make them less appealing to me, though as I'm evaluating web-applications on their own merits I have to give the nod to Google Presentations.

Object Handling

Text is handled pretty much the same way in each application. The fonts differ, but the practice is the same — draw a box, click in it, and type. The difference shows when the time comes to format text objects. Here PowerPoint Web App falls flat. It's able to set a background and line color, as well as line weight — that's it. Google one ups them by enabling transparency for it's objects, though it's buried in the "custom color" dialog so most normal users probably won't find it.

Keynote, in sharp contrast, shines. Fill options include color (though no transparency can be set for the colors, which is an odd omission), gradient, and image (from a list set by the template). Borders can be set between various line styles and "picture frames" which give objects extra presence. Objects may also be given drop shadows, reflection, and object-level opacity (not so helpful with text boxes).

Moving objects in both Keynote and Google Presentations will give feedback in the way of snap-lines which show when objects are centered, aligned, etc. It's a killer feature which PowerPoint lacks.
While Keynote has many "luxury" features for formatting text, Google has the ability to set the opacity of it's background fill, which is an essential tool for me. While I can work around this issue by creating transparent objects behind text, I shouldn't have to. Google's object palette is also vastly more robust than the other applications (though PowerPoint Web App does have "smart objects" to create simple charts). When it comes to handling objects, and text objects in-particular, I have to give the nod to Google Presentations. Keynote's luxury features are compelling, but the inability to set background opacity makes them fall to a very close second.

Image Handling

Each application allows users to upload images to presentations and keep them stored in the cloud. Oddly enough, only Google leverages it's cloud storage for inserting images into presentations. While this is not a terrible thing, it is an odd oversight — especially given that Keynote doesn't even grant access to a user's Photostream. Keep in mind that in both Keynote and PowerPoint, inserting an image first means uploading it to the application server.

Formatting images in Keynote gives the same options which are available for text objects, minus fill-color. Images can have borders, reflection, drop shadows, and opacity - or can be formatted with "picture frames" to give it more eye appeal. Interestingly, PowerPoint Web App adds many more formatting options for images than for other objects. By selecting "Picture Tools" in the Ribbon, images can have pre-formatted styles applied to them, and may also be cropped from within the application. Google Presentations, on the other hand, isn't able to format images at all. PNG's uploaded to each application retain their transparency.

Google scores with its integration of cloud storage to their Presentations, but the utter lack of formatting features prevents it from scoring a point here. Both Keynote and PowerPoint Web App  have some great formatting options, though PowerPoint Web App's ability to crop inserted images wins out over custom beautification. It pains me to say it, given how much I dislike PowerPoint's interface, but they get the win in this category.

Animations

Keynote's slide transitions are unmatched among the three applications. Google Presentations does put up a good fight, but Keynote has too many options for it to win out. PowerPoint Web App has only fade and push as options, with a few options to provide variety.  PowerPoint Web App's lack of options may be a good decision, given how people have a tendency to go "transition crazy," but some more options would be nice.

Build effects for objects, are a different matter. PowerPoint Web App has three options — appear, fade in, and fly in — with some variations on each. Google has several with build in/out varieties listed — fade, fly, zoom, and spin. Timing may also be set to activate with a click, alongside another animation, or following an animation (though no timing delay can be set for this latter option). Keynote has no animations at all, which is absolutely mind-boggling to me. I understand Keynote is a beta application, but animating objects in a presentation is one of the core features of presentation software! I'm shocked Keynote even made it to beta without build animations included in some fashion, I hope they are added soon.

Google wins this round, it's animations are more flexible and easier to access.

Collaboration

Keynote is out of the running here, it has no collaboration features.

PowerPoint Web App does have collaboration, and even allows for multiple people to be editing the same document at one time while changes show up in real-time. Unfortunately, there is no indication when another user is editing an object, so it seems as though objects are suddenly being edited by ghosts in the machine. Google, on the other hand, has absolutely nailed real-time collaboration. When other users open the same document, they are assigned a color to indicate their actions. Whatever they do in the presentation is marked by their color - right down to which slide they are currently viewing. When a user selects an object it's bordered by there color, leaving no doubt who is editing what. The included chat feature makes it a a near-perfect solution. Google wins; no one else is even close.

Presenting

Presenting with any of these applications is going to be a headache if you depend on some of the more subtle presentation features like a presenter-screen and speaker notes, both of which depend on utilizing a dual-screen setup. Of the three, Google manages to create the most desktop-like experience, but setting it up requires some mental gymnastics in order to get the presentation on the audience screen, and the notes and thumbnails on the primary display (it involves detaching tabs). Even then, for me, Mountain Lion's full-screen mode hides the user notes completely – making presenting impossible for this application (at least until Mavericks is released). Microsoft includes speaker notes, and smartly begins a presentation in a separate window, but there doesn't seem to be any way to access speaker notes while presenting which makes them useless. Keynote, in what I can only hope is a feature still not ready for beta, has no speaker notes feature at all.

In the end, if you present from one screen and don't require access to your presentation's notes you could probably get away with mirroring your desktop screen to a projector and running through your slides. If you are a power-user then these applications shouldn't even be considered for "going live" to your audience.

Google Presentations used to include a way to present to others on the web, which was a wonderful  and forward-thinking experience. The current iteration of Presentations sadly seems to lack this feature, I hope they bring it back soon. Displaying to individual screens is likely going to be common in the future.

No one wins this round, the significant limitations of each applications makes the lot a terrible option to use while presenting.

Conclusion

Of the three applications I have to say Google Presentations is the best all-round. The other applications have their strengths, but fall significantly short in far too many other areas. Google Presentations lacks image editing features and a robust presentation mode, which keeps me from whole-heartedly recommending it, but it's still the best all-round option currently in the "free" market. Keynote will also need to be watched closely to see if Apple is really intent on creating a functioning web-app, or just another way sucking users into the Apple eco-system. We've come a long way with web-based presentation applications, but we have yet to "arrive."

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