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More Reasons for Microsoft to Love Apple

I like being surprised, but I have to tell you that I didn’t expect Office 2008 for the Mac to do very well. You see, Microsoft’s reputation is heavily tarnished these days, and more and more people are embracing Macs; in greater numbers, in fact, than anyone had a right to expect. At the same time, sales of Vista are not so terrific, made mostly to people buying new PCs, and even then it seems a fair number of their customers really want to “downgrade” or “sidegrade” to XP.

So I have to tell you that I did not expect to wake up and find a Microsoft press release in my Inbox extolling the stellar sales of Office 2008. Other reports claim that they moved three times as many boxes as Office 2004 during the introductory months. Of course, in those days, Apple sold about a third as many computers, so I suppose this improvement is understandable based on the size of the market alone.

Indeed, Microsoft appears to have been working hard to rid Office 2008 of its early-release bugs, such as excessively slow launch times. The new SP1 update, for example, after an initial period where databases are rebuilt, results in the apps opening twice as fast.

Nonetheless, my expectations had been severely lowered because of Microsoft’s unfortunate decision to ditch support for its Visual Basic for Applications macro capability for the Universal version of office. This is a critical feature, particularly for cross-platform compatibility, or any issue involving documents that contain macros. Sure, Microsoft’s Mac Business Unit went to AppleScript for a macro-like capability, but there’s no easy transition or translation process.

Microsoft’s excuse was that it would take an additional year to move VBA from its original programming environment to Universal. That excuse — and I don’t know if it’s true or not — was later extended up to two years. At the same time, Microsoft said they were looking into a future solution.

That came with the promise that the next version of Office for the Mac, due some time in 2010 most likely, will provide VBA support all over again. The only open question is how complete it might be, because, power users tell me, there are known incompatibilities between the Mac and Windows versions even now.

Until then, if you must use macros, stick with Office 2004, or just install Windows on your Intel-based Mac, using Boot Camp or a virtualization application, and get by with Office 2007 for the time being.

That, of course, brings up another reason for Microsoft to love Apple, at least when it comes to dollar signs. You see, whenever a new PC with Vista preloaded is sold, Microsoft gets a discount OEM fee that reportedly averages around $50. However, the million Mac users who have bought Parallels Desktop and the countless others who use Windows with another solution are paying those much higher retail user license fees. Microsoft has to be delighted at the turn of events, since sales of retail Vista licenses have been charitably described as tepid.

In addition, Microsoft recently inked an agreement with Apple to provide ActiveSync support on the iPhone. Beginning with the version 2.0 iPhone update due late in June, you will be able to take advantage of full or nearly full compatibility with Exchange servers. In addition to getting the license fees from Apple, that means Microsoft stands a chance of selling more licenses for Exchange Server, which can cost a good $10,000 or more. Way to go Microsoft!

So, despite their well-known troubles, Microsoft can rely on Apple as a reliable partner — and competitor — to deliver additional profits. What a strange world we live in.

This isn’t to say that Microsoft get off scott free in this changed environment. As some of you have observed, their biggest problem is leadership, and it’s a leadership that has no vision whatever when it comes to true innovation. They are mostly involved with selling yesterday’s technology, repackaged or relabeled as something new and different When it came to their failed efforts to gain traction against Google in the search and online ad market, they believed that squandering tens of billions of dollars to buy Yahoo would somehow create the magic synergy that spelled success.

Now I won’t say that such a merger can never occur, even though it’s off the table right now. If Yahoo’s efforts to fix their business problems don’t bear fruit in the next few months, you can bet that shareholders will likely force a reconsideration of an alignment with Microsoft. If Yahoo’s stock price is in the toilet, Steve Ballmer and his crew might even get their prize for less money than they were wiling to offer right now.

At the same time, would it really make that much of a difference? True, Microsoft has one huge staff of talented designers and engineers and I am convinced they are as capable as any tech company when it comes to building first rate products. But they lack guidance from the top, and that won’t change unless Microsoft ditches its leadership and brings onboard people who can steer the aging battleship in a new direction.

What made the difference at Apple is, of course, Steve Jobs. Is there someone like him who’d be capable of cleaning out Microsoft’s huge bureaucracy and building a lean and mean organization that would cast out the cobwebs and allow the company to compete at full throttle in the 21st century?

That’s a tall order, and I suspect Microsoft can drift along without a rudder for a number of years before they realize something’s wrong. In the meantime, they can count on Apple to deliver a decent amount of profits to help keep them rolling along.