Goodbye, Keynote (Sort Of)

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I always hated PowerPoint. When a colleague suggested we should drop support for Keynote for our company presentation template, I was convinced I would rather quit than use Microsoft’s cumbersome software.

That has changed. I still do not love PowerPoint like I loved Keynote in its best days, but for reasons that I will explain below, it has taken Keynote’s place as my main tool for creating presentations, and other than with similar changes before, I do not feel that this is a completely bad thing. It’s not that I had to choose a vastly inferior app against my conviction because my tool of choice was discontinued.

A history of goodbyes

I had to say goodbye to apps that I strongly preferred to their counterparts a number of times. FreeHand, when Adobe first bought it, then abandoned it and eventually buried it in favor of Illustrator. Fireworks, also taken over by Adobe, who first kept maintaining it and even made it part of the Creative Suite until they dropped it because they did not see Fireworks’ place within their app portfolio.

Apple’s Aperture. Ambitioned (over-ambitioned?), but always a better fit for me than Adobe’s (again!) Lightroom—despite Aperture’s rather high hardware requirements. Both apps were targeted at the same customer group: pro and semi-pro photographers. But Adobe marketed Lightroom more aggressively and Apple already had a re-worked Photos app for a bigger number of customers in the works. So Apple ditched Aperture.

During each of these changes I felt a strong loss because someone had taken a superior tool away from me and I had to cope with inferior alternatives. (Well, inferior to me, anyway. Your mileage may vary. I don’t want to argue here.)

This time, I don’t leave with as many regrets, because other than with the changes before, my app (Keynote) does not feel as superior any more.

Keynote, love at first sight

Why did I love Keynote from the start? Sure, it had a killer feature: automatic (“magic”) transitions of objects between slides, but it wasn’t that. It was the whole package: Pro-level layout control (pixel-perfect placement, yes!, smart guides, yes!), usable animations (a beautiful and customizable cross fade, I seldom used the more spectacular ones). An interface where you did not have to dig for features or even blindly use modal dialogues when changing simple properties. Copy and paste or drag and drop for all the image file formats there are. Templates where you can reset single elements and maintain consistency while allowing for creative freedom. Usable, precise image masks. Keyboard shortcuts for handling elements (easy change of stacking order, yay!).

I could create presentations better and faster than anytime before and even do things within Keynote that were not possible with PowerPoint or required extra software to achieve. I presented app concepts and interactive web layouts, completely built in Keynote, which to the client felt like the real thing.

Keynote still does this, no? Was has changed?

A king in decline

It began some years ago when Apple changed Keynote’s layout engine to achieve feature parity with the iOS and web versions. Features were dropped, but I could live with that, since the new app core promised to be more versatile than the old one and missing features would eventually be restored.

But the new version had bugs, sometimes critical ones, like missing images. You don’t want to restore slides minutes before a client presentation. And because the new engine only supported limited resolution for images, it would replace high resolution images (like full page web layouts) with crappy lowres versions—on opening and without notifying the user! We had to warn colleagues not to open old presentations with the new version because that would destroy them irrevocably.

Those bugs were fixed, eventually, but trust was lost. At least, Keynote still was way faster and easier to use and the only tool for precision screen work (PowerPoint to this day measures in cm).

Then two things happened that tipped the scale for me: Keynote forgot its precision, and remote and platform-ignorant collaboration became a must.

Precise no more

As for precision: Other than in PowerPoint, placing, positioning and arranging objects on slides in Keynote was for the longest time fast, precise and reliable. You could trust the coordinates of an element, even (of course), when looking at them on different slides. But now, sometimes objects with the same x-coordinate do not align, and re-entering the same value will visibly change the position of the element. Which is a real bugger.

More: When placing guides, their position is shown in percentage of the slide’s dimensions, and visibly different positions refer to the same percentage value. Worse, guides do not snap to objects, so you cannot place a guide on one slide exactly on the same position as on another slide. What makes them pretty worthless for me.

Assured, object placement in PowerPoint was always really bad and still is not good, but it is either perfect precision or none. And object snapping and smart guides do work in PowerPoint now. As does pasting in place. So that huge argument in favor of Keynote is for the most part gone.

A good tool is one that you forget you are using, right? Because you feel no friction when using it. Keynote in its current version introduced a lot of friction for me.

Presenting in a Zoom and Teams world

I haven’t visited a client or held a presentation in person for more than a year now. I did not stop working, nor has the nature of my work changed very much. Thanks to the internet, what needed to be done in physical proximity now works as good or even better remotely from home, because there are video conferencing apps like Zoom or Microsoft Teams. Or WebEx, Skype, GotoMeeting, Google Meet, or Whereby.

(In fact, I was in calls at least once with each of those apps. Nobody ever asked me to attend a FaceTime group call to discuss any business subject, by the way.).

Turns out that Keynote requires more attention and careful use for remote presentations than PowerPoint does. Say I’m in a Zoom call or a Teams meeting and I want to share my presentation. With two monitors, I can view the presenter view on one screen and share the second screen with the slides. That works in PowerPoint as well as in Keynote. Just remember to enable “Allow app switching while presenting” in the Keynote preferences, otherwise you won’t be able to, well, switch to other apps without ending the presentation. And while the PowerPoint presentation stays visible on your screen when not active, your Keynote slides disappear from view once you hit cmd-tab. Again, your mileage may vary, but that’s not useful for me.

Recently, to be more flexible in remote presentations, Keynote introduced “present in a window”, and you can then share only that window. Just what you need, right? Turns out that Keynote uses some very special window handling so that Teams cannot see (and thus, share) that window. I filed a Teams bug to address the problem, but it seems not to be Microsoft’s fault this time.

So, presenting remotely is in any case fiddly, it is just more fiddly with Keynote. Again, more friction added.

Cross platform cooperation: Barriers instead of bridges

At a time, I evangelised heavily for Keynote in my company. I argued against all the misconceptions and reservations my co-workers had. What about a team working on the same document on different platforms? Well, I could always open their .ppt and .pptx and even export it and it would not break worse than an original PowerPoint file sent from a PC to Mac. I built parts of presentations in Keynote and copied them to PowerPoint slides after exporting them and that was still faster (and better looking) than if I had done that in PowerPoint alone.

Keynote remained an island, but it was a pleasant one, and to cooperate with Microsoft mainland, there were at least ferries you could use, and PowerPoint files had to travel by ferry as every other file had to.

With the introduction of document sharing (with sharepoint), Microsoft changed the topology of the island in a big way. Since we’re using Outlook and Teams and Sharepoint in our company, all employees could work in real time on shared ppt files right away.

And I must say, that has a lot of advantages. For Keynote, Apple had nothing comparable in place. Of course, you can also invite others to collaborate on a Keynote file, but they need to log in with an Apple ID, which in most cases (with us, anyway) is their private one and not managed companywide. Some don’t have any. I tried, but after some experimenting I decided that to overcome that hurdle just requires too much work. And an IT infrastructure that we just do not have and nobody wants to introduce.

Power Point got better. Yes, really

Like I said, I hated PowerPoint. But it changed. Microsoft added some neat features, took some inspiration from Keynote, and some things that PowerPoint does differently, it even does better than Keynote.

Small things made a difference, like adopting the same keyboard shortcuts for changing stacking order or grouping (and ungrouping) objects.

Some features I learned to appreciate, like nested templates, or using existing templates for pasted content instead of adding new master slides to the file. This one is especially important to keep presentation templates tidy. Which Keynote is terrible at.

Some things I even learned to live with. Or without, it depends. I also do not know if my needs have changed. For example: Interactive prototypes are now easier to create and manage with specialised software like Adobe XD (this one I like very much, but again, its future is very uncertain), or InVision or Figma.

And to make a case for an idea, simple is better than complicated anyway, so that the main work for a presentation more often than not happens outside the presentation app. To present the idea in a simple way, PowerPoint is more than capable of.

Disillusioned? It’s not perfect, but it will do

With many ways it does things, PowerPoint still drives me crazy. Shift-arrow scales objects instead of moving them in bigger increments? Insane. No keyboard shortcut to copy and paste properties? There is was only that damn brush tool. Want to mask an image without distorting it right away? Forget it. Those ugly dotted guides? Microsoft has no taste. Modal dialog boxes for text and paragraph properties, still? Only reset a part of a slides to the default design? Impossible.

But it is a choice between two evils, where to make something necessary possible, something nice will have to give. Something really nice, damn it.

So, mostly because I work in a company where Microsoft makes it easy to use PowerPoint and which has the infrastructure to utilize its features, I will recommend to not maintain Keynote templates for us anymore. Some colleagues may stick with it, but maintaining two branches of templates is not worth the effort anymore.

Did Apple miss the boat? Is it doomed?

I do not care as much as most people if Apple missed the boat with corporate software. Of course, I ask myself why Zoom and Teams and not FaceTime took the lead for corporate video calls. What bothers me more is the lack of attention to detail with software like Keynote. How can blunders like those I described happen anyway? Is it because Steve Jobs, for whom that software allegedly was written (at least he is said to have overseen the development personally) is not there anymore? I do hope that I am wrong.

On the other hand, I would not be surprised to see another app that I dearly loved abandoned and, in the end, buried in spite of its superior quality.

If that happens, it will be ok. As with all things: This too shall pass.

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