Practical Mac

SAN FRANCISCO — At the yearly Macworld/iWorld conference and expo this week, some of the most interesting news in the Apple ecosystem was provided by Seattle-area companies.

After months of rumors, Microsoft finally introduced an Office suite for the iPad (
office.microsoft.com/en-us/mobile/), which includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote. The apps are free for viewing documents. To edit and collaborate with others requires an Office 365 subscription; the most affordable option, Office 365 Home Premium, costs $99 per year and works on up to five computers (Windows or Mac) and up to five tablets.

I haven’t had enough time to really work with the Office apps, but I can see how they’d be useful for groups that are already deeply wedded to Microsoft’s suite on other platforms.

Also introduced (and appearing at the show) was Cloak 2.0, a utility for creating secure virtual private network (VPN) connections when you’re working or traveling away from your usual network.

I wrote about Cloak last year after being introduced to the Fremont-based company at Macworld/iWorld 2013, and soon after I subscribed to its service. Cloak bypasses a lot of the trouble that’s traditionally involved in setting up a VPN.

When I’m working on my MacBook Pro in a coffee shop, the software initially blocks network connections until it makes an encrypted Internet connection. That prevents nearby snoops from analyzing the wireless traffic between your computer and the cafe’s router.

Version 2.0 cleans up the interface a bit on the Mac, but the real work was put into the iOS version. Previously, after Cloak had been configured, you’d have to go to Settings and enable the VPN. Now, Cloak 2.0 can establish a secure tunnel without that manual step.

I realize that probably sounds trivial, but on iOS devices it hasn’t been easy to implement. As a result, I admit, I often forgot to turn on the VPN on my iPad, even though I was using it on my MacBook Pro on the same table.

Cloak 2.0 costs $2.99 per month to transfer up to 5 GB of data, or $9.99 per month for unlimited data. There are also options for paying for one-time passes covering a day, a week, a month and a year as in-app purchases. A free 30-day trial is also available.

The last product, not yet on the market, is a welcome piece of software that fills a need. BusyMac announced a new application for the Mac called BusyContacts. The company’s business model is surprisingly simple: Make much better versions of applications that Apple has stumbled on.

In this case, the culprit is the Contacts application built into OS X. The Contacts library is used by many areas of the system (for example, Mail gets your friends’ email addresses from there), but the Contacts app itself has always been subpar.

BusyContacts taps the same underlying data but promises to not be a frustrating experience. In addition to offering a better interface than the Contacts app, it adds keyword tags for better organization and smart lists of contacts.

I love the idea of smart lists, mostly because I find groups in the Contacts app almost unworkable. A search for Seattle Times, for example, would find everyone in my address book who works at The Seattle Times. When I added someone new, that person would automatically appear in the smart list; I wouldn’t have to manually add him or her to the group (which I could forget to do, resulting in the person not being included on communications, say).

BusyContacts will also feature customizable list views (so you can choose which information to show) and shared address books. Tight integration with the company’s BusyCal application means you’ll be able to see in one place all of the events that involved a particular person.

BusyContacts will be in beta this summer, with a release date in 2015, and is expected to cost $50.

Although Macworld/iWorld is not the behemoth it once was in its old Macworld Expo incarnation (when Apple dominated the show and largely set the tone), the show has found itself a successful comfort zone.