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Do You Still Need Office for the Mac?

Whenever I get a word processing document, I don’t have to look at the file extension or icon to know it’s probably in Word, or translated into that ubiquitous format in another application. A spreadsheet? Excel, of course, although things might be a little hazier with a presentation, since Apple’s Keynote does so many good things so well.

So it’s fair to say that the various components of Microsoft Office are as critical and common on the Mac as on Windows. In fact, many suggest that few would take a Mac seriously as a business computer without Office being regularly developed for the platform.

Certainly, Microsoft’s Mac Business Unit has been working seriously on the software for years. Sure, it’s been a while since a major release appeared, but there’s that little matter of making a Universal version, which meant bring millions of lines of code into a new development environment. Sprawling software requires sprawling efforts to move the lumbering beast forward.

However, rumors arise every so often that Microsoft keeps its Mac software available grudgingly, and they’d like nothing better than to discontinue all of it for good. If you want to use their products, switch to Windows. So whenever a product such as Windows Media Player is no longer available for Macs, concerns naturally follow. And, of course, we all know that the Windows version of Office has applications and features not available on the Mac.

It doesn’t help that Microsoft’s spin-doctors have changed the philosophy with which the software is released. At one time, Office for the Mac and Office for Windows were supposedly developed in alternating cycles, or at least that’s what they claimed at the time. One would leapfrog the other, and vice versa. Now the Mac version is expected to naturally follow the Windows edition by eight or nine months. This isn’t to say that Office for the Mac will simply be a port from Windows, although critical functions are carried over.

At the same time, I am thoroughly convinced that Microsoft’s Mac developers are thoroughly dedicated to their work. Over the years, I’ve talked to some of these people, and they are clearly Mac boosters through and through. Obviously, they have to toe the company line and they are no doubt constrained by policies imposed on them by the higher-ups, but they work long and hard to make the best software they can.

It is quite true that there are alternatives if you need Office compatibility. There are those Unix-based products, such as NeoOffice, a Mac version of OpenOffice, which is supposed to provide similar features and fairly robust translation in both directions.

Native Mac applications, such as Mariner Office, Mellel, Nisus Writer Express and even Apple’s Pages, are supposed to allow you to read and save Word files. Mariner Calc can be a useful alternative to Excel, lacking only certain power user features that few require.

Indeed, if you want to keep your Mac Microsoft-free, it’s not hard to survive, for the most part.

However, if you look at Office and consider it by its own merits rather than the name of the company that built it, you might find a lot to like. For writers and editors, the Track Changes feature is an extremely valuable method to keep tabs on the sometimes long and convoluted process a writing project might take. Certainly, I would not have come through over 30 technology books with my sanity intact without it. Despite some quirks here and there, this is one important capability that doesn’t survive translation via the third-party alternatives.

As an email client, Entourage seems to anticipate my every need, although its performance can drag in some areas.

I am not a regular Excel user anymore, and haven’t done any PowerPoint presentations to any great extent since writing a large book on Office several years ago, so I don’t consider myself qualified to speak on the ins and outs of those applications.

Sure, Office is huge, bloated, and sometimes buggy. But it’s also true that millions of Mac users have embraced it not because they have to, but because they consider it the best tool for the job.

You may not need Office, and no doubt the alternatives can fulfill most of the functions without being saddled with the Microsoft label. But I’m glad to have Office around and I look forward to the Universal version, which is promised for the third quarter of 2007.