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  • Do You Really Need Microsoft Office?

    May 15th, 2008

    When I first started writing computer books in 1994, I remember being asked whether I had a copy of Word installed on my Mac? You see, as with most publishers then and now, they rely heavily on Word’s Track Changes feature to monitor the editorial production process from the original manuscript to the final version that is used to generate the printed pages.

    Now Word actually originated on the Mac, but it had its share of ups and downs over the years, and some of you might suggest the latter is the most common result. Word’s near-downfall occurred with the infamous version 6, which was a bad PC port, using their notorious “P code” to employ the same code base for both Mac and Windows.

    Aside from the fact that it was slow to launch, the interface was dark, dreary, and lacked the proper Mac-like fit and finish that we demand for our favored platform. Yes, there were subsequent updates that addressed performance shortcomings, but you could almost get the feeling that Office for the Mac was dead, as far as Microsoft was concerned.

    Of course, we have the Mac Business Unit now, and the ongoing pledge that Office:Mac development will continue for the indefinite future. In fact, Microsoft has already confirmed that a new version is under development, and that it will arrive two or three years from now. That schedule might depend on the successor for Office 2007 for Windows, since the Mac version has to be mostly compatible.

    Yes, it also appears that Microsoft is moving lots of copies of Office 2008, and this week’s SP1 update appears to have mostly addressed the worst bugs and performance issues. However, we all know it has one show-stopping limitation, which is the lack of support for Microsoft’s Visual Basic for Applications feature, which is key to creating cross-platform macros.

    In fact, certain Excel document are so customized with VBA they almost seem to be presenting themselves as a different application environment. While it’s not something I’ve used much, I once worked for a publisher that employed Word macros to maximum benefit to heavily format manuscripts so they’d be easy to translate to their chosen desktop publishing environment for final production.

    With Office 2008, none of that is possible. The documents will indeed open, of course, but the functions provided by the macros will not be available. Working with MacTech magazine, Microsoft did provide some guidance on using AppleScript for Office 2008, but with no direct VBA to AppleScript translation mechanism, that was a poor solution.

    True, VBA will be back in the next Mac version of Office, but where does that leave you now?

    Today, if you must use macros on your Mac, you have to stick with Office 2004, or set up Windows with Boot Camp or a virtualization application and install Office for Windows instead. In fact, the latter solution is so effective, you probably won’t suffer any significant performance limitation, so long as your Intel-based Mac has plenty of RAM installed.

    However that doesn’t help sell copies of Office 2008, right? Does that mean that the sales hike is only temporary, and that a large number of potential customers will simply sit out this version? If so, that could result in a self-fulfilling prophecy, assuming Microsoft actually would love to kill Office for the Mac eventually.

    But I don’t believe that they want to dump Mac support. Aside from potential antitrust threats, Microsoft makes a nice amount of change from their Mac Business Unit, more than enough to keep a staff of over 200 (the largest ever) happily developing Office and a handful of other apps.

    Microsoft’s excuse in losing VBA for Office 2008 was time. Moving everything to Apple’s Xcode environment so they could build a Universal application suite, took well over a year, they say. Bringing VBA along for the ride would have involved another delay of at least that much or even two years. Not good for the Mac division’s bottom line.

    However, the biggest problem Microsoft may be facing now is that, without macro support, maybe Mac users really don’t need Office, even if they exchange documents with the Windows version. That can be accomplished with decent fidelity using Apple’s iWork ’08. Even Track Changes comments are supported in both directions, so it may well be that your editor or publisher will never know you didn’t use Word.

    Add that to the arrival of a new beta of OpenOffice for the Mac, ongoing development of Mariner Write, Nisus Writer Pro and Mellel, and the reasons for Office’s existence have been severely reduced over time. In fact, despite the false and persistent claim that the Mac platform doesn’t have a lot of software, when it comes to word processes, you have a rich selection.

    If you want to ditch all things Microsoft from your Mac, you can probably do quite well, thank you. That’s something Microsoft should fear, because the loss of VBA and the loss of potential sales may only be the beginning.



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