- Freeform is Apple’s first brand new app in a while.
- It’s an infinite canvas app with real-time collaboration.
- It’s not available on Windows.
Apple's new Freeform app takes Mac, iPhone, and iPad collaboration to a new level, but can it compete with the big names?
Apple doesn’t make new apps very often, so Freeform is exciting for that reason alone before you even get into its features. It’s also Apple’s first attempt at a real-time collaboration app, and in my limited testing, it seems to work great. But Apple’s problem is that there are already other freeform canvas-sharing tools, which are not only fuller-featured but don’t require Apple devices to use.
“As with most of the features that are Apple only, Freeform is unlikely to be hugely useful in most corporate environments as they are firmly fixed to Windows products,” Dragos Badea, CEO of Yarooms, told Lifewire via email. “This means that while Freeform might be a fairly useful bit of technology, it will remain largely niche for creatives, and possibly academics.”
Freeform is an infinite-canvas app that lets you draw and write, add images, drag in documents and links, and move them all around. On the iPad, you can use the Apple Pencil to draw shapes, write text, and so on, and you can see other collaborators’ edits in real-time. I opened the same Freeform canvas on a Mac and an iPad, for example, and when I drew on the iPad’s screen, I could see my strokes appearing in real-time on the Mac.
I asked a friend of mine, a professional fashion stylist if she would find it useful. Stylists create and collaborate on a lot of mood boards and other visual references. She liked it, especially being able to drag images out of web pages and into the canvas, right there on the iPad, and the ability to share a canvas with a client.
The infinite canvas makes other things possible, too. If you’re trying to draw a map, you’ll never run out of space if you misjudge the scale, to begin with. And if you’re making diagrams of anything, it’s great to be able to just start without planning anything first. It’s also great for brainstorming, scrapbooking, planning a vacation with photos, links, maps, and reviews, or when you don’t have a free wall and a bunch of pins and red string. It’s perfect.
If you’re collaborating between family members who all use Apple devices—Freeform works on the Mac, iPhone, and iPad—then you’re good. If you want to use it in the workplace, then you’re out of luck if even one person uses a Chromebook, Android phone, or Windows PC.
That’s the trouble with Apple’s tightly-integrated hardware and software setup—everything falls apart when you need to integrate other devices. Sometimes Apple will make an exception, like iTunes for Windows, but that was just so Windows users could use iPods and iPhones.
And if—like my stylist friend—you want to collaborate with various clients with unknown computing setups, then Freeform is a no-go from the start. If anything, the knowledge that these apps exist will probably make her look for other options.
And it’s not just that there are other options. There are better ones. Microsoft’s Whiteboard app, for example, comes as an app for Windows, Android, and iOS (but not the Mac).
“[The] Microsoft Whiteboard app offers a lot of the same features as Freeform, but it’s available on a lot more platforms. And it’s been around for a while, so it’s probably more well-known and established,” business software consultant Alaa Negeda told Lifewire via email. “Plus, Microsoft Whiteboard is much more versatile than Freeform.”
Freeform is unlikely to be hugely useful in most corporate environments as they are firmly fixed to Windows products.
And then there are the more left-field options. Obsidian is an app based on interlinked text files, kind of like a cross between a text-editing app and a personal, local Wikipedia. Recently, it added a new feature called Canvas, which gives you—you guessed it—an infinitive canvas.
Obsidian’s Canvas doesn’t do live collaboration, but it’s already much more impressive. Unlike Freeform, any text files dragged into an Obsidian canvas can be scrolled and edited, right there on the sheet. If you drag a YouTube URL into Apple’s Freeform app, you get a thumbnail image. In Obsidian, you get an embedded, playable video. You can also link elements together with virtual strings that stay attached when the objects move.
On the other hand, Obsidian doesn’t let you draw on your canvas. But on the other, other hand, neither does the Mac version of Apple’s Freeform since drawing is limited to mobile devices.
In the end, Freeform is a neat experiment, albeit one that’ll probably never take off in the professional world, and it’s still a bit too limited for even casual use. Hopefully, it will blossom with attention from Apple, like the Notes app, and not end up abandoned, like its Clips app. Time will tell.