Is Microsoft Paying Lip Service to the Mac?

February 7th, 2008

One of the landmark agreements that Steve Jobs got from Bill Gates in the last decade was the pledge that Microsoft would continue to develop Office for the Mac over an additional five years. That agreement has since been extended, and Office 2008 is their latest Mac product.

At the same time, some speculate that Microsoft only made this agreement to settle some long-standing lawsuits involving Apple and, later, with an eye towards possible antitrust repercussions if they discontinued Office.

Indeed, although there are plenty of terrific word processors and other applications that can, in part, replace the various components of Office, it’s still required in many businesses. A Mac version of Office is the door opener that allows Apple to penetrate many enterprise markets that it might not otherwise be able to enter, although they don’t really play terribly much in that space.

But certainly the Windows switcher can feel comfortable in having Mac versions of the most-used Windows application. Indeed, the Mac version of Office is a huge cash cow for Microsoft. Certainly support costs are far less than the Windows version, and the Mac Business Unit certainly works very hard to deliver as good a product as they can.

They are, though, constrained by corporate policies. Worse those policies continue to put the Mac at a huge disadvantage.

In fact, Microsoft’s Mac product portfolio has shrunk over time. Once, you can actually get a Mac version of Internet Explorer. In fact, that was a part of the agreement with Apple that included Office’s continuation. Apple made Internet Explorer the default Mac browser.

How times have changed. Apple now has Safari, and the only version of Internet Explorer you can get is on the Windows platform. Of course, that may be a plus, as it is notorious for security problems, and Web designers have fits trying to make their sites compatible with Internet Explorer without losing accurate rendering with other browsers.

Now that Internet Explorer’s market share is suffering at the hands of Firefox and, yes, Safari, Microsoft is suddenly touting adherence to Web standards in its promised next version.

On the Mac side of the fence, the Windows Media Player is history, with the technology being passed off to a third party plug-in, Flip2Mac, from Telestream. Even then, some Windows Media formats, such as the ones that are required for its copy-protected files, remain incompatible. So if a Mac user wanted, for some strange reason, to buy a Zune, they’d also have to run Windows on their Macs to be able to download content from the Zune Marketplace.

As far as Office is concerned, certainly the Mac BU has done a neat job in making it as compatible as possible with the Windows version. But Office 2008, the first Universal binary version, has some peculiarities. One of the lesser issues is the fact that its performance suffers on a PowerPC Mac compared to Office 2004. In talking with Jim Galbraith, Macworld’s Lab Director, he said he doesn’t recall any other Universal applications that exhibit that sort of performance hit.

Indeed, launching Word 2008 is extremely slow, but that’s true on an Intel-based Mac too. I plan to try it soon on one of the new Mac Pros, incorporating the updated “Harpertown” version of Intel’s quad-core Xeon processors. Then again, why should anyone need such a powerful computer to get decent performance from a mere word processor?

In all fairness, this is the first release of Office 2008, and it’s very possible Microsoft will release an update that will attack performance deficiencies.

But there is one other deficiency that isn’t going to vanish so easily, and that’s the lack of support for Visual Basic for Applications. That feature allowed you to create macros in your Office software, and have them work cross-platform. What this means is that if you open, say, an Excel or Word document with an embedded macro that performs a critical automated function, that function won’t run.

True, Microsoft provides enhanced support for AppleScript, but there’s no direct translation. This can certainly present a huge obstacle to using Office 2008 in some work situations, and sales might just suffer.

Would Microsoft then discontinue Office because of slumping sales, even though it was the lack of a significant feature that reduced demand?

Now the Mac BU says that porting VBA to a Universal binary would have postponed the release of Office 2008 by up to a year, and it was already late. I don’t know if this is just corporate spin, or an honest response. But wouldn’t it make sense to simply run VBA under Rosetta for the time being, and release a Universal update later on?

Just asking.

Now I can’t say that Microsoft is indeed crippling its Mac products with the long-term plan of ditching the platform. That might be too conspiratorial. But you have to wonder what they were thinking, and I am definitely concerned about the whole thing.

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17 Responses to “Is Microsoft Paying Lip Service to the Mac?”

  1. Aaron says:

    The thing that really gets me about Office 2008 is it’s lack of parity with it’s Windows counterpart. Here is an example I go through every day, Excel ’08 can’t connect to an external data source and create pivot tables based on that data. This means I have to use Fusion every day to use Excel 07 to connect to my data source so I can get the information I need. There are lots of other examples of this with Entourage that I heard while on the floor of MacWorld last month.

  2. Scott Crick says:

    I don’t have Office 2008 yet, but I’m going to give Microsoft the benefit of the doubt here. VBA was NOT just simple code that made Office do things. It was some pretty low-level stuff that couldn’t just simply be ported to the Intel Mac by the click of a checkbox. Also the Windows verson of VBA (which is also rumored to be on the chopping block in the next few years) couldn’t be simply ported over either because it relies on some Windows-only cruft. Having VBA be Rosetta-only while the rest of Office was Intel-native might indeed be an engineering nightmare.

    I believe them when they say they had to make a decision–delay Office further or drop VBA and get it out the door. Who’s to say they aren’t working on a new version of VBA (although I suppose a lot of that would depend on what happens to the Windows version: dead or not?) and will reintroduce it once they’ve had a chance to get through the work.

    Office 2004 is not unusable. Granted, it can be a little pokey on an Intel Mac, but its VBA still works fine. If you need VBA, that’s fine, stick with Office 2004. As for the rest of the problems people have pointed out with Office 2008, I’m sure that the MBU is listening and working on resolving many of those issues. These people really are Mac people and they really want their products to be the best they can be. They many looks we’ve gotten inside the MBU via interviews and inside-looks, etc. have convinced me of that.

  3. Brian says:

    Microsoft has always been about the last developer to support new features or the many transitions Apple has made. It’s good business for them to, for example, only release a real Outlook client for OS9 AFTER Apple moves to OS X, etc… It’s fun and games, for sure, but MS can only drag their feet so long without losing money. I find Office 2004 to be fine on Intel actually. Office has never really been as fast as it should be–5.1a was close though. Also, you can never count on any new version paginating your older documents correctly, so it makes sense to stick with an older version at least until you have finished any major projects. Even then, it pays to keep the older app around, or at least keep PDFs of anything important.

  4. Greg Walker says:

    I say B.S. to the comment that the Mac BU has really wants to develope good software for the mac.

    Why they do not produce an outlook client that for the Macintosh that matches the Windows version feature for feature justifies my point.

    I work for a software development company and we would NEVER I MEAN NEVER take away a major feature that our users depended on to meet a production date. That my friends is a no no.

    The Mac BU says they have taken surveys of their users and the #1 priority according to these surveys say that mac users want Cross platform functionality. if this is your customers #1 priority why would you cripple a new product by taking away VB macros. That will render the software unusable in a corp environment. You guys need to wake up. The Mac BU has orders to always cripple the Mac Product and never provide feature parity. If I am lying tell me what product do they product that has feature parity with the windows version.

  5. Tom B says:

    Under Ballmer, MSFT has failed to maintain even its traditional anemic, do-the-minimum-necessary-to-ship-the-product level of performance. Look at Vista–slower XP with some new eye-candy.

  6. You make some good points. I think, though, the Mac BU is doing the best they can under the corporate constraints they are given. In the end, they are the “grunts” and not the leaders when it comes to planning Mac products and feature sets.


  7. G says:

    One of the biggest issues I have with Office 2008 is its TOTAL LACK OF SUPPORT FOR M$ SharePoint.

    SharePoint integration was touted in Microsoft’s early features lists but fell off the map during beta testing.

    For enterprise clients this is a major issue.

  8. John says:

    It doesn’t matter if the Mac BU is making miracles. What matters to Mac users is the policies set by the management that these guys operate under. It doesn’t matter if the guys in the Mac BU love the mac with all their hearts and think of nothing else. They are part of Microsoft and it’s the results that they produce that count.

    The results that they produce are clearly defined by their management to cripple the Mac version of office.

    Do you blame the hired hitman for killing a person or do you blame the person that hired him to do the killing?

  9. Gino says:

    Office 2008 is the last version of Office that will run natively on Mac OS X. The next version of Office you buy will require Windows and if you want to run it on Mac hardware be prepared to have to dish out for a Windows licence to run under Boot Camp or in a VM like Parallels or Fusion. The announcement will be made at a Macworld following the next release of Office for Windows—probably in 2010 or 2011. Microsoft will justify this by saying that because the majority of Macs deployed run the Intel processor there is no longer a need for a native version of Office since it can be easily run in its native Windows environment and you get the benefit of full compatibility. They may even sell a version marketed directly at Mac owners that includes a Windows licence. You heard it from me first.

  10. drx1 says:

    I think the problem with MS going from a ‘real’ Outlook client in OS 9 to Entourage X/2004 was that they were not intially in charge of the Outlook project. I think the blame is on Microsoft, but not the MacBU and certainly they probably lost some money because of this.. but if they lost a million $$$ what is that to a company that has (or had?) $40B in the bank?

    Also Entourage 2004 is a lot better now… after 3SP (11.3.9 is current)… MS usually does pretty good on the third try.

    Also, for VBA in Excel, I think MS is dropping that in the next version of Windows Office … though who knows when that will be out. And both Vista and Windows Office ’07 have some huge issues – mostly in corporate space. Medium and large companies are not going for Vista or even Office ’07, since they are not compatible with many of the custom built apps (for Vista) for file formats (for Office). Also the hardware requires to run Vista well are crazy… unless you are a big gamer or just need it for home email/Word.

    Maybe Microsoft has a new policy to code in the MS Decelerator® into every new piece of software/OS? 😉

  11. Andrew says:

    I’m just waiting to try Office 2008 and see if they improved the Exchange support over Entourage 2004. In 2004, I could use my own email and calendar just fine, but could not share the calendar or view the shared calendars of other users. This is essential in most corporate uses, and is the single most important network feature in my law office. If my secretary cannot view and modify my calendar, without having access to my full exchange account (and all of those privileged emails), then I start missing appointments and court dates. This function is why I bought Exchange (2-years before Leopard Server), and is why I am forced to use Windows Outlook on my Macs instead of Entourage 2004. If Entourage 2008 finally gives full Exchange support (2004 advertised Exchange compatibility as a feature too) then I will make the move. Otherwise, my Macs, Intel and PPC, will stay on Office 2004 for Mac and Office 2007 for Windows.

  12. Mark says:

    The problem is that office applications are a dying product. Given that everyone from Google to Apple has apps that are compatible to a high degree with .doc files, there is no need to keep drinking M$’s kool-aid. M$ retaliated by making a new format called .docx which currently doesn’t have a lot translators. Those translators will come as needed, but currently the .doc format seems as popular as ever. One of the biggest complaints I have heard is about setting a default to use the old format instead of the new one.

    M$ has painted themselves into a corner and it will be interesting to see how the monkey man can get them out.

  13. Chuck says:

    Here is one thing we all know: MSFT will do anything to maintain their Windows advantage. Even if it means something so stupid as to lose sales.

    How could Office for Mac be so crippled? Why don’t we have the same Exchange functionality? Wouldn’t that sell more Exchange servers?

    Not in MSFT’s world. They are too paranoid that more Mac sales means less Windows market share. When in reality I would guess they would trade an Office for Mac sale over a Windows Vista or XP install (highly discounted) on a Dell box. It makes no business sense. It’s like shooting yourself in the foot!

    MSFT doesn’t understand. They continue to think like it’s 1995. Those days are over. Everyone has moved on. But they still want to live in that nostalgic time. And we get a sub-par office suite.

  14. Dana Sutton says:

    A few comments: a.) I’m not so sure that there’s anything quite so purposeful behind M$’s policies as Gene suggests: a corporation which has screwed up its flagship product, Vista, so badly, is probably not a corporation that is exceptionally Machiavellian in dealing with the Mac market. M$ is sticking to its track record of putting bad software out the door, pure and simple. b.) I agree for heavy-duty users who need advanced features like VBA, running a Windows version with a VM is the best answer. And here is a good example of M$ stupidity: they ought to realize that Mac owners represent a large and ever-growing potential market for Windows, and also that if M$ got behind VM for the Mac and really pushed it as a solution, they could terminate the Mac BU, which would presumably save them some real bucks. Instead of being obstructive towards VM by only allowing the most expensive Vistas to be used with a VM, as they did until very recently, it would be in their best interest to support this solution aggressively. For ex., they could market a special Windows + Parallels bundle, or even a Windows + Parallels + Office bundle at a special reduced rate to make this solution as attractive as possible and suck more Mac users into going the VM/Boot Camp route.

  15. D9 says:

    Bottom line, I don’t see a compelling reason nor have a critical need to upgrade to Office 2008 for Mac.

    After all these years, little has changed from 2004, some important office features are missing, and the new features are merely wiz-bang UI improvements. Nothing dictates that I should upgrade our department to be both compatible w/ the overall Windows workers nor improve our productivity. No full Exchange compatibility, poor cross-platform Word document editing, loss of Excel macros, and the continued lack of complete cross-platform performance of PowerPoint presentations are just the main gripes I see.

    With that stated and so many alternatives out there that are free or a fraction of the price, I just don’t see the reason to upgrade to Office 2008. Granted, in our and most corporate environments, it’s got to say “Microsoft Office” to be allowed in, getting a new version is certainly not required. As has been noted online, 85% of most Office features are never used by the majority of users.

    So why do I need to upgrade to 2008?!

  16. G says:

    To add to my earlier comment about Office 2008 lacking SharePoint integration another somewhat glaring omission is the lack of Services functionality. This also means that live access to the Dictionary (Control-Command-D point at a word) does not work in any of the new Office applications. Considering the fact that if you install Apple’s Developer Tools and build the example TextEdit project both Services and the Online Dictionary work just fine one is left wondering what rationale/motive is behind Microsoft’s development of Office for the Mac.

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