- Apple’s infinite canvas app, Freeform, is now beta testing on the iPad.
- The app is slick but far from full-featured.
- Apple can’t hope to compete in any office that uses less than 100% Apple computers.
Apple's first brand-new app in quite a while is… a collaborative infinite canvas?
It’s called Freeform, and it’s kind of like a never-ending whiteboard. It showcases the new collaborative features found in iOS 16 and macOS 13 Ventura and allows several people to work on the same canvas simultaneously. For a first effort, it’s not bad. But it lacks the kind of depth and polish that Apple will need to break into the collaborative document space dominated by Microsoft and Google.
“The main drawback of Apple’s Freeform is that it is iOS / iPadOS exclusive, [but] not all members of teams are using Apple devices, so the team itself may be discouraged to explore this app’s capabilities,” Rajesh Namase, technology writer and co-founder of TechRT, told Lifewire via email.
Freeform is very simple, and yet already pretty useful, even in its beta stage (it’s only available in the iPadOS 16.2 beta on the iPad right now). Imagine a scrapbook page, only when you run out of space, you just zoom out and continue adding stuff. You can add text boxes, draw diagrams, and drag items in from other apps; URLs get rich previews like in the Notes and Messages apps, and you can drag in photos from anywhere, including Safari.
What’s there is quite slick and works well. The app never seems to misinterpret a pen stroke or gesture. For example, you can tap to move or resize images, text, and shapes, and Freeform always seems to understand your intention to perform the correct operation. This is exactly what Apple is good at. The Apple Pencil, the iPad cursor support, and Apple’s trackpads are all the best around. Zooming and panning are smooth, and it works really well inside iPadOS 16’s new multi-window Stage Manager environment.
There are some oddities, though. If you want to add a text box, you have to reach to the top of the screen and tap the text tool, creating a new box in the center of the canvas. It would be much more intuitive and faster if you could double-tap the canvas and have a new text box appear at that point, like in Literature & Latte’s excellent Scapple app.
On the other hand, Apple has already gone deep in places other software makers never bother to touch. For example, accessibility support is there from day one:
“The capability to define accessibility descriptions to items on the whiteboard is one feature I discovered in Freeform that [I’ve] unfortunately not seen in other apps,” digital marketer and collaboration app user Simon Brisk told Lifewire via email. “You can add more contextual information next to a board item to assist folks with accessibility issues in understanding what an item is and how it relates to other board items.”
Apple’s challenge is to get people to use its collaborative tools. While plenty of folks use Numbers and Pages in lieu of Word, Excel, and Google Docs in the workplace, you have to use whichever tools everybody else uses. That’s the whole point of collaborative software, after all.
Apple might now make it easy to collaborate on documents (you just tap the Share Arrow icon and choose your collaborator(s) from the list), but that’s the easy part. Not only are Google Docs and Microsoft Office deeply embedded into offices already, they’re also way more mature, collaboratively-speaking, than Apple’s efforts.
Viewed from this angle, Freeform is a smart move. There are infinite-canvas apps available, but all those I've tried are either clanky, janky, limited in scope, or have some weird privacy issues that put me off.
“When it comes to collaborative apps, Apple is up against some stiff competition. Google, Microsoft, and Adobe all have their own offerings in this space, and they’re all well-established players. So can Apple hope to compete with them? It’s tough to say,” software engineer and collaborative software user Robin Salvador told Lifewire via email. “Is it for professionals? For home users? And without a clear target market, it’s difficult to say how well Apple will do.”
And while there’s still competition from the big players—Office has Whiteboard, but Google Docs has nothing like it—it’s not in the same league as Docs or Word in terms of being essential, so it could sneak through a crack.
But Apple's biggest liability here is also its strength in other areas. Freeform, along with Pages, Numbers, Keynote, etc., is Apple-only. You can't use them on a PC, just the Mac, iPad, and iPhone. So unless your work environment is 100% Apple, all bets are off.
Still, this could be great for anyone planning a complicated vacation or moving to a new house.