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Keynote Plays Ball with PowerPoint
Pages: 1, 2, 3

Overall Maturity

With its ten-year lead over Keynote, PPT is faster at I/O-related operations (such as loading/saving and changing the theme of a presentation while editing), and offers some editing capabilities not yet in Keynote, such as global replacement of fonts. But Keynote's Mac designers have given their usual thoroughness to polishing the user interface. For example, when switching from editing to running your slide show, Keynote View->Play Slideshow starts at the current slide, which is optimal for the two common cases: either you just opened the slide show file (so the first slide is the current slide) or you're editing and you want to see how your edits to the current page look in full-screen. There are two shortcuts for this: the Play button in the main toolbar and the keyboard shortcut (Alt-Command-P). PowerPoint doesn't seem to have any shortcuts, and always shows the slideshow from the beginning.

For another example, when you're in a slide show, both programs accept the Escape key to get back into editing mode. Keynote also accepts the common "Q" (for quit). It is the sum of these many tiny optimizations that makes Keynote seem easier to use than its competitors.

On the other hand, one thing I miss from other Mac applications -- even TextEdit (!) -- is the ability to make selected text bigger or smaller with Command+ and Command-, respectively. This would come in very handy for copy fitting: when editing Titles or bullets that are just a bit too long for the line and you don't want to devote another line to them, for example.

Import and Export

Keynote advertises that it can import PDF files, among other formats. When I saw the advertisement I thought I'd be able to import the PDF handout from one of my old presentations. But PDF import is designed for images and graphics. It will import the first page of a PDF and place it in a slide, but it will not treat it as text, so you can't import a whole presentation.

Keynote can import PPT files (but not templates). True to the original meaning of "open systems" (i.e., interoperable), Keynote will also export its presentation into Microsoft PowerPoint format. This is a welcome departure from programs that will import but not export other formats. Importing and exporting of PPT files worked well, though some fine details were lost, such as the path for PPT word art. (At least on 1.0; I have not re-tested this on 1.1, since I've since removed PowerPoint from my Mac).

Exporting to the Masses

While most presentations are designed to be presented by a human speaker, you often want a handout for those who can't attend the presentation. Keynote gives you these options:

  • Print directly from Keynote (see Figure 9).
  • Save as PPT, and tell people to use the free PPT viewers from the Microsoft web site.
  • Save as PDF, a true cross-platform format, and let people use either the free Acrobat Readers from Adobe, or open-source tools.
  • Save as a QuickTime movie and let people use the free QuickTime viewers from Apple's web site (or newer versions of Windows Media Player).

The Print Handout prints four very small slides at the side of a mostly-blank page; this is good for people with excellent vision who want lots of room to write notes. I prefer to use Print Slides and set the standard Mac Print->Layout to request two-up printing; I find the slides more readable. I also usually tell it to print dark backgrounds as white, print borders, and print slide numbers, but these are all personal preferences.

Print Slides Dialog
Figure 9. Keynote's Print Slides dialog

PowerPoint also allows you to export to QuickTime, but I got my only "PowerPoint has unexpectedly quit" dialog on that one. One nice feature of PowerPoint is the ability to export as HTML, which lets people see a basic view of the show without special viewers. This creates a navigator on the left with a link to each page. These presentations worked fine in several browsers, with exceptions like single quotes not printing correctly in the titles (though they worked in the slide section). This is common enough -- web browsers are everywhere, after all -- and Apple's iPhoto offers it, so presumably Keynote will get this ability soon.

Save File Format

Keynote is one of the first (probably the first) commercial slideshow programs to use XML as its native save file format. Each presentation is saved in a directory named PresentationName.key. Included in this folder is an XML file with the extension ".apxl" (for Apple Presentation XML). The XML Schema that regulates this file format is publicly available on Apple's web site. Also included in the .key directory are various images, such as the background image and various bitmaps. Each of these is stored in a separate TIFF/JPEG file.

This is a departure from received wisdom in the slide show software world, but it actually makes sense in a world where 100GB disks are becoming the norm. And having a publicly documented file format does mean it's more likely that other programs will be developed that can generate Keynote presentations.

There is information on the file format at Annoyingly, each save removes and re-creates this directory, which messes up CVS and other file librarian systems that keep revision control files in the same directory.

On the issue of importing, by the way, if you have a plain text file with slide titles in column one and bullets indented by a tab stop, PowerPoint can import this into a presentation. Keynote cannot yet do this, which is a bit surprising, given the UNIX orientation of some parts of Mac OS X. Perhaps this will be included soon. PowerPoint has auto-save and incremental save, and its save file format is smaller, so opening and saving are faster.

Same Meaning, Different Words

There are several places where Keynote and PowerPoint provide the same feature but under a different name. My favorite example is transitions, the notion of having part of a slide appear, either by dissolving or by sliding in. PowerPoint calls them Animations (and has some confusion in naming them -- selecting one from the format Menu sometimes has it show up with a different name in the Formatting Palette). Keynote calls them Builds (I never would have thought to call them that). Both Keynote and PPT do a good job in transitions; PPT has more variety, but some are garish.


Microsoft seems committed to the Apple platform, because they have a leading market share there in the presentation software area. There are few other good complete office suites for Mac OS X. There is an early Mac version of the UNIX-based and free Open Office at, but it requires the X Window system, and they don't expect to have a native port until "Q1 2006" (how's that for long term planning?) and the inexpensive ThinkFree Office Suite. I'm sure there are others; I apologize for any that I've missed. PowerPoint (and most of Microsoft Office) can be said to be multi-platform (well, at least two-platform): they can be run both on Microsoft Windows and the Mac.

The same cannot be said for Keynote, which depends on OS X features like Quartz, GL graphics, and QuickTime. It seems unlikely that there will be a version of Keynote for Microsoft Windows anytime soon, and it's not clear that Apple wants to try marketing software to run on MS Windows anyway (or that they would know how ...). For now, at least, PowerPoint is two-platform and Keynote is single-platform. That said, both can export into several cross-platform formats, including PDF, and of course PPT format.

Final Thoughts

Keynote 1 has hit the ground running pretty well. You can import PowerPoint presentations, and you can export your presentations into PPT files, PDF, or QuickTime for distribution. A Mac iBook or TiBook with Keynote makes an excellent "road warrior" platform for presenting your ideas effectively and with style. As mentioned, I've removed PowerPoint from my Mac notebook; Keynote does it all. Watch for more and more people using Keynote.


My Keynote site will contain the sample presentations and viewables made from them, as well as other contributed goodies.


Keynote 1.0.

  • Good news: Professional presentation graphics made very affordable.
  • Bad news: May need a draw program to go with it.
  • Need a Mac to run it on (good excuse to buy one?)
  • Retail: C$159.00 in Canada, US$99 in USA.
  • Printed documentation: User's Guide (97 pages, no index); Quick Reference (8 page fanfold).
  • Info:

PowerPoint "v.X"

  • Bundled with Microsoft Office for Mac (available unbundled for Mac and MS Windows in the US).
  • Good news: widely used, runs on Mac or MS Windows, large feature set.
  • Bad News: More expensive than Keynote. Older UI. Occasional instability.
  • Retail: US$499/$399 Office X Pro/Standard for Mac and Office XP Pro/Standard for MS Windows, US$229 Standalone for Mac and MS Windows, (separate purchase not available in Canada).
  • Printed documentation: none (Mac), 28 pages in Office XP book (MS Windows).
  • Info:,

Ian F. Darwin has worked in the computer industry for three decades: with Unix since 1980, Java since 1995, and OpenBSD since 1998. He is the author of two O'Reilly books, Checking C Programs with lint and Java Cookbook, and co-author of Tomcat: The Definitive Guide with Jason Brittain.

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