A question of presentation (FT features)

20th January, 2004

It has been a year since Apple Computer launched its Keynote software in an attempt to win a share of the vast market for presentation tools, dominated by Microsoft’s PowerPoint.

If Microsoft’s estimates are accurate, more than 1bn PowerPoint presentations have been created since Keynote arrived. If you feel as if you have had to watch every one, you may be interested in how Keynote compares. It is available only for Macs, so to win over a personal computer-loving business audience it needs to be very good indeed.

First impressions are promising. Macs are famous for looking good and Keynote is no exception. The stylish appearance is almost entirely down to a handful of pre-designed templates; some are subtle, some loud, but every one is better than the ugly templates provided with PowerPoint 2003.

But is Keynote’s beauty only skin-deep? Not entirely. Keynote has fewer features than the venerable PowerPoint but what it does, it does well and without reducing the novice user to tears.

With PowerPoint, it takes skill and hard work to create something stylish on screen. With Keynote, it is hard work not to – default settings are attractive and simple functions such as drag-and-drop have built-in guides. These are little things but they add up to a programme that is quick and easy to use.

But while Keynote sharply improves on PowerPoint’s handling of animation, fonts and graphic transparency, it remains a rather unexciting piece of software for projecting bullet points, graphs and pictures.

PowerPoint offers a greater range of functions than Keynote but some are of doubtful use. PowerPoint’s drawing tools and auto-shapes are absent from Keynote but will not be missed. The Keynote philosophy seems to be that pictures should be created with a professional graphics program; it is for presenting pictures, not making them.

Other PowerPoint functions are useful only for the connoisseur. It creates smaller files more quickly. It offers work-sharing, hyperlinks around presentations and better integration with audio and video clips. Animations can be more precisely controlled. At least, that is what the boffins say.

But while PowerPoint’s hidden depths never cease to amaze, the programme is long overdue for a facelift. Anybody who merely plans to create some nice-looking slides will be much better off with Keynote.

For all the little differences, it is remarkable how similar, and rather tired, the two rivals are. Keynote’s rotating cube animations will look as hackneyed to audiences as they now do in the 1980s pop videos in which they first appeared.

Presenters who want to make a real impact have two options. One is to get really sophisticated in the use of the programs.

The easier option is to recognise that slides often distract both presenter and audience from the things that really make an excellent presentation, such as plain speaking, wit, good analysis and responsiveness to the audience. It is hardly ever a good idea to show slides continuously throughout your talk. In this spirit, it is encouraging to note that Keynote and PowerPoint share a very important feature: press “B” and you can show a beautiful, uncluttered blank screen.

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