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The future of computing’s an unknown, but plenty of thinkers reason that we’ll eventually only need a single device. Perhaps some iPhone that’s currently only a glint in Apple’s eye will one day be ‘it’ for work and play. In a decade, the notion of a typical computer could seem archaic. A handheld device may remain perfect for working on the go, but also better communicate with additional screens and accessories in the office.
Even now, the iPhone is a great piece of kit for getting work done. Commentators resolutely stuck in the past might argue otherwise, but pay them no heed. Instead, tuck into our list of 24 apps that can transform your iPhone into a workhorse for the office, helping you read and edit documents, organize your thoughts and day, share and upload files, and better communicate with colleagues.
— TapSmart (@TapSmart) July 30, 2015
For Microsoft advocates
Microsoft has a reputation for stodgy, dry, clunky software, but this is a hangover from the bad old days of the 1990s and early 2000s. Modern Office is a very different beast indeed. While it doesn’t have quite the design smarts of Apple’s equivalent suite, the ‘big three’ — word processor Word, spreadsheet creator Excel, and presentation tool PowerPoint — are all broadly impressive apps.
What’s perhaps even more startling is that the iPhone versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint are all really impressive. There’s a very clear sense of ambition as you explore the apps, noting just how much of their desktop cousins’ features have made it over to the smartphone. There are, of course, niggles, not least that highly complex documents aren’t much fun to edit on an iPhone, but these apps are more than good enough for checking out existing files, making quick changes, or even starting new documents from scratch (plenty of templates are included), which can then be finished off on a PC or Mac.
For free, you can view documents in these apps; create a free Microsoft account and you get basic editing as well. Unlocking the full experience requires an Office 365 subscription, for which prices vary by subscription type and region. (A personal subscription — which covers one PC or Mac, one tablet and one phone — will set you back $6.99/£5.99 monthly or $69.99/£59.99 annually.)
Apple’s office suite with design smarts
The three apps formerly known on the desktop as iWork — Pages, Numbers and Keynote — seemingly started out as an attempt to rethink the kind of office product Microsoft was famous for. The differences were subtle but noticeable — an emphasis on layout; simplicity and usability over feature-bloat; and a tendency towards elegance.
Recent updates on the desktop have come in for heavy criticism, due to features being removed and the apps becoming even more focussed (critics might argue ‘underpowered’ is a better descriptive term); but this means they now have parity and very strong compatibility with the mobile releases — which happen to be very good indeed.
Using Pages, you can very quickly work up great-looking documents containing words, images and shapes, either from scratch or by using one of the many included templates. Keynote is a straightforward but polished presentation tool, with some superb animation and a handy Apple Watch app for moving through a slideshow. But Numbers is the real prize — a spreadsheet app that’s actually fun to use. The various available styles look great, the intelligent keyboard provides keys in context for editing any cell’s content, and you can create forms for quickly entering data on the go.
Pages, Numbers and Keynote cost $9.99/£7.99 each, but are free with any device activated or purchased after September 1, 2013, as long as it’s running iOS 8. See Apple’s support document for more info.
Free online collaboration with Google
Apple presents an alternative to Microsoft Office, but it’s Google’s online equivalent that’s become almost ubiquitous in recent years. You might wonder if much of this is down to Google’s office suite — Google Docs (word processing), Google Sheets (spreadsheets) and Google Slides — being entirely free to use, but it’s more than that.
First, the apps are relatively basic and therefore easy to get to grips with. You won’t be crafting the kind of elaborate output you might in Word or Pages, but for straightforward text documents, Google Docs is an excellent tool, and Google Sheets does the job when you need to sort a quick spreadsheet. Most importantly, though, these apps are primarily online-oriented (although the iOS versions will work offline) and their collaboration features are best-in-class. So even if you favour Microsoft Office or iWork, it’s worth checking out Google’s apps when you need to work on something with a bunch of other people.
Organizing your thoughts
Regardless of the project you’re working on, you’ll need to get your thoughts down somehow. A good way of doing so is a mind map, where you take a central concept, join ideas to it, and branch further ideas off from them. MindNode ($9.99/£7.99) is a superb app for drawing up such constructions. You get an infinite canvas and (optional) ‘auto-magical’ item placement. Plenty of options are provided to adjust the visual appearance of your map and export/share it.
If you need something more involved, OmniGraffle 2 ($49.99/£39.99) does the business. It’s pricey, but has tools for creating a wide range of organizational diagrams, including process charts, wireframes and page layouts. There’s support for Visio documents, and you can export to PDF.
Although your iPhone has a perfectly serviceable calculator, PCalc ($9.99/£7.99) is a great bet if you’re looking for a properly feature-rich alternative. The app has a long history, going way back on the Mac, and provides an extensive array of layouts, modes, settings and conversions. There’s an Apple Watch extension, too, which is the best calculator for that device.
There are other ways of totting up figures, though, and Soulver ($4.99/£3.99) is our favourite. It’s essentially a mash-up of a calculator and stripped-down spreadsheet; the result is like jotting down notes on the back of an envelope, watching as the sums are completed before your very eyes. A big advantage is in being able to note down figures in context (Soulver intelligently works out which bits of a sentence are necessary for the sum), integrate results into subsequent lines, and have the entire calculation update dynamically when any figure is changed.
Getting things done
Fantastical 2 ($4.99/£3.99) is a calendar and reminders app that uses existing iCloud data but provides an interface superior to those in Apple’s apps, not least excellent natural-language input for creating events. Two more Omni Group apps, OmniFocus 2 ($39.99/£29.99) and OmniPlan 2 ($49.99/£39.99), respectively, offer in-depth task management and visualizations of project planning. The latter includes Gantt charts, schedules, milestones and MS Project support. And Drafts 4 ($9.99/£7.99) is the last notes app you’ll ever need. It’s ready to type on launch, has a searchable archive, and can send text almost anywhere.
Reading and sharing documents
Reading, storage and organizing are three things people take for granted regarding documents on desktops and notebooks, but less so on iPhone, which has traditionally been more of a closed box. However, with the current version of iOS and the latest generation of apps, things are far more flexible than they once were.
With GoodReader ($4.99/£3.99), you have a first-rate document reader that can cope with PDF, Office documents, TXT and HTML, along with images. With PDFs, you can annotate, rearrange pages, and then send the result on to an FTP server or cloud storage provider. The app also has the means to collate, ZIP and upload multiple files. Documents 5 (free) has broadly similar features, minus annotation, and is worth installing to provide fast access to the iOS Document Picker until iOS 9’s iCloud Drive app arrives.
Finally, there’s Transmit for iOS ($7.99/£5.99). This is the best option on iOS if you want a robust, usable and great-looking file manager. You can use the app to connect to FTP, SFTP, S3 and WebDAV, along with local Macs. Drag and drop is beautifully implemented via a clever ‘drop’ bar in single-column mode (iPhone 6 Plus users get a two-column view in landscape), and there’s full support for the iOS Document Picker and Share sheets.
Scanning and editing images
Working with imagery is rarely at the forefront of people’s minds in a business environment, but that doesn’t mean your iPhone’s camera has to sit there impatiently until you’re on a beach or at a gig. First up, you should take a look at Scanner Pro 6 ($2.99/£2.29), an app that turns your iPhone into a portable scanner.
Lay a document on a desk and the app will capture it, intelligently crop the resulting photo, and provide options to print, share or export it. You can also make basic edits, adjusting the cropping, brightness and contrast levels, rotating the image, or converting it to greyscale or black and white. Multiple scans can be merged into a single container, and there’s even a ‘radar’ feature that attempts to rifle through your Photo Library, to unearth potential shots of receipts and documents — although we found matches veered wildly between impressively accurate and entirely comical.
Should you find yourself in need of advanced image editing, you can’t do better on iPhone than Pixelmator ($4.99/£3.99). In short, the app’s much like having a streamlined Photoshop in the palm of your hand. It’s capable of anything from straightforward edits through to complex layer-based manipulation, and it’s one of those apps that points towards the future of the platform.
Communicating with colleagues
When it comes to keeping in touch with colleagues, there are apps baked into your iPhone. For traditional calls, there’s of course Phone. FaceTime provides the means to make video calls over the web to iOS or OS X users. And Messages merges SMS text messaging with Apple’s own iMessage system.
But not everyone will have an iPhone or a Mac. Therefore, Skype for iPhone (free) remains a must-install. Like FaceTime, it enables you to make video calls (or audio ones, if you’re on a slower connection) over the web, for no charge beyond whatever data plan you’re on. Pump some money into your Skype account and you can also call mobile phones and landlines at low rates.
Skype adds a messaging system, too, but we’d recommend you and your colleagues instead take a look at the excellent Slack (free), which provides real-time group messaging in user-defined threads, and adds the means to send direct messages to individuals, share files, and upload images. There’s support for a wide range of devices, and the iPhone client is excellent.