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Office 2008 for the Mac: A Short Look at a Sprawling Suite

Four years is an awfully long time in the software business, although Microsoft is good at stretching its software development projects even longer, witness Windows Vista. But I didn’t think, when Office 2004 for the Mac came out, that we’d be waiting so long for its successor.

Of course, a lot has happened to slow Microsoft down, and the key factor is Apple’s move to Intel processors. It meant that millions of lines of that code behemoth known as Office had to be ported to Apple’s own developer tools, known as Xcode. That isn’t like taking a word processing document created in, say, Nisus Writer Pro and saving in Word format, a process than can be done with reasonable fidelity to most essential formatting. When you switch development environments, it may take weeks, months, or even longer to fix the inconsistencies and massage your code so things continue to run properly.

So I appreciate that Microsoft’s Mac Business Unit had a huge undertaking, and this may be a major reason why the software, due out January 15th, was postponed for several months from its original deadline. Talk if you will about Microsoft’s inefficiencies. It’s not as if they could afford to just trash more than 20 years of work and start over.

So now we have it. With Office 2008 for the Mac about to be released, Microsoft arranged for a number of people in the media to get beta copies, and then the RTM version, which is the so-called Golden Master that was released to manufacturing in December. So I’ve been privileged to have an early look at the Mac version of the world’s most popular software suite.

While this is not meant as an extensive review, it’s clear Microsoft has made great strides towards making the whole shebang prettier. From the basic icons to the various toolbars, palettes and so on and so forth, everything shows a lot of attention to detail.

What’s also nice is to see Office run at acceptable speed on an Intel-based Mac at long last. However, for some reason, the launch times have slowed considerably on a PowerPC-based model. Take my PowerMac G5 Quad, with scads of memory. Word can take from 6 to 12 seconds to launch, and the latter behavior is frighteningly reminiscent of the infamous Word 6 debacle, where Microsoft tried to inflict an application with a Windows look upon us.

This isn’t to say that Word 2008 isn’t Mac like. On the contrary, it seems that Microsoft has taken great pains to avoid the silly interface changes of Office 2007 for Windows. Yes, there is that dreaded ribbon, but you don’t have to invoke it, and it actually doesn’t look half bad.

However, the proliferation of toolbars and the ribbon can combine to severely restrict your document writing window, particularly on a Mac with a smaller screen. But a little judicious handling of the extras can go a long way towards making your work environment far more pleasant.

In saying that, Microsoft still persists with some long-term Office annoyances. For example, Word 2008 still doesn’t remember the page you had open when you last worked on a document. That’s something Apple’s Pages and loads of other applications support.

Also, the monolithic database file persists for Entourage 2008, Microsoft’s combined email and contact manager. What this means is that, if something happens to that lone, sprawling file, you could lose some or all of your contacts and emails. Contrast that to Apple’s sensible approach, which is to put your messages in separate files.

As new features go, Office 2008 may come up somewhat short. Sure, the publishing view of Word 2008 might, for example, ease the process of using the application for some desktop publishing chores. It may even be that Microsoft was influenced by Apple’s iWork ’08 in making some of its design decisions, and, speaking with an eye towards conspiracy theories, maybe Microsoft really delayed office to take a few hints from Apple.

Regardless, the real goal of Office 2008 is to make the frequently-overlooked features more discoverable, so you can more easily harness their power. Microsoft claims that its user surveys showed many requests for features that Office for the Mac already had. So rather than add more undiscovered treasures, they made the ones they had easier to access.

On the whole, Office 2008 for the Mac seems a worthy upgrade. I would only hope there will be a near-term revision to address the performance issues I’ve noticed. But I also wonder why I’ve yet to see any other preliminary review mention such matters, so maybe I’m alone in that observation. Or maybe I’m the only one who is concerned enough about Word 2008’s launch times to complain.