Is Microsoft Office 2008 Too Little, Too Late?

October 1st, 2007

On or about January 15, 2008, according to current plan, Microsoft’s Mac Business Unit will release the long-awaited — and somewhat delayed — Office 2008 for the Mac in the U.S. They are busy touting its new features, which include updated artwork, a page layout feature for Word, and various and sundry tools for easier organization and access.

The suite, which dominates the Mac market, though not nearly as much as Office for Windows dominates that platform, is a huge profit center for Microsoft. Compared to the grief they suffer with their own operating system, Microsoft’s Mac software requires far less technical support. For most people, it just works, even if the software is flaky and typically bloated.

I have little doubt that Office 2008 will be a marvelous upgrade, well worth the purchase price, even if you’re buying your copy from scratch and don’t have an older version at hand. I’m personally a fan of Entourage, the email and contact management application, although the current version is slow, even on the speediest Power Mac on the planet, the G5 Quad. On an Intel-based Mac, despite ongoing improvements in Rosetta emulation, Entourage can be a real drag — and you can interpret that phrase any way you like.

In addition, Office 2008 will reportedly be file compatible with Office 2007 for Windows. So far so good.

But there is one key feature the Mac version has dropped that may create havoc for a certain segment of business users, and that’s Visual Basic. You see, Microsoft’s programming language is used for macros, which automate many complicated Office procedures, particularly with sophisticated Excel documents. Some book publishers set up custom templates with Visual Basic macros, so the author only has to invoke the proper shortcut to embed formatting commands that translate during the final book production process. In other words, this feature is not only significant but crucial for many users.

On the negative side of the ledger, the so-called Office macro viruses use security holes in Visual Basic to do nasty things. On the Windows platform, they might cause extensive damage, since Office and other Microsoft applications are closely tied to the operating system. On the Mac, these viruses might kill your Office templates in various ways. In one well-known situation, you can no longer save new documents — they are all saved as templates.

If there’s any real reason to run anti-virus software under Mac OS X right now, it’s the risk of a macro virus, or perhaps accidentally sending virus-infected messages to a Windows user. So if you thought that Macs are safe, you are probably right — at least for now — but why would you want to hurt a Windows user? That is, of course, unless you don’t like the intended recipient of your message, but that’s still not the point, since it may accidentally spread to an innocent third party regardless of your intentions.

To be a bit more serious, though, Microsoft’s Mac BU gave a logical-sounding excuse for axing Visual Basic. It’s taken them long enough to port their code to Apple’s Xcode programming environment, so they can build a Universal version. The task of transitioning Visual Basic would take the better part of the year; at least, so they say.

Now it’s very easy to come up with a logical-sounding conspiracy theory here. Microsoft secretly wants Mac users to switch to the Windows platform, and thus they are crippling Office 2008 in ways to force people to make some critical decisions if they must use macros.

On the other hand, Office 2008 will have expanded support for AppleScript. All but the cheapest version will include a number of Automator actions to help deliver basic functionality without having to learn scripting. There already have been articles published about transitioning to AppleScript, so it may be possible to take some existing macros and make them work under the new system.

That, however, doesn’t mean there will be two-way translation between AppleScript or Visual Basic, or even that such a thing is possible. If it was, I wouldn’t be so concerned.

In the meantime, while Apple continues to tout Microsoft Office as an important Mac application suite, they have worked hard to improve iWork. In the latest version of Pages, for example, there’s virtually complete support for Word’s Track Changes feature. This is a critical workgroup tool that lets writers and editors collaborate on a document and keep tabs on the entire revision process.

If anything, Pages does it better, since you no longer have to put up with Word’s silly change balloons and other awkwardness in exchange for a method that’s at once smoother and easier to handle. It also appears, based on my brief testing, that you can transfer documents back and forth between Pages and Word and not lose any of the edits.

This is not to say that iWork ’08 is a 100% alternative to Office. Many of the advanced features of Microsoft’s suite aren’t supported. Apple has carefully targeted iWork for home and small business users, who will rarely, if ever, require the sophisticated elements of Office. It’s fair to say, in fact, that only a fraction of Microsoft’s users ever thoroughly attack the convoluted nooks and crannies either, so maybe it doesn’t make a difference.

Certainly, Apple is not overtly going after Microsoft’s customers. But the delay in releasing Office 2008 may accomplish that result anyway. And for folks who really don’t care about macros anyway, this may just be the last straw.

Is Microsoft listening? Will they take the blame if Office 2008 isn’t a smashing success, or will they just say that Mac users don’t care anymore, that maybe it’s time they packed up their bags and went home?

Of course, Microsoft has also done some pretty screwy things with its Windows products. In the end, if they lose the Mac market, it may indeed be more the result of stupidity than conspiratorial thinking.

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