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Is Microsoft Paying Lip Service to the Mac?

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.