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Microsoft Apps and the Mac

Most of you know that Microsoft’s Mac Office apps all originated on the Mac in the 1980s, before they were duplicated on the then-fledgling Windows platform. Now before you remind me about that old political gaffe about being in favor of something before you were against it, that should, in theory, indicate that the world’s largest software developer ought to be able to build the best Mac products on the planet.

But that is not necessarily true.

Sure, Office for the Mac has a huge market share. That may be due, in large part, to the fact that people who switched from Windows want to work with what, to them at least, is the tried and the true, and not have to seek out a new set of productivity applications. In multi-platform environments, the system admins prefer to have equivalent software for their Mac and PC users. It sure lessens the learning curve, and enhances compatibility.

After occasional stumbles, it’s also true that Microsoft’s Mac Business Unit has tried hard to infuse the appropriate Mac-like interface elements into their software. If anything, Office for the Mac is probably superior to the Windows version, even thought the latter sports extra stuff.

Unfortunately, perhaps in the drive to provide comparable products, Office for the Mac suffers from the same useless complexities of the typical Windows product. We all know, for example, about the deep-seated menus in Word that offer functions few ever heard of or perhaps will ever need. One of the big selling points of Office 2001, the last Classic version, and Office 2008, the first Universal version, was discoverability. That means making the hidden features more accessible, so you can take advantage of the sheer power of these applications.

However, you sometimes wonder when enough is enough. Apple, in contrast, is perennially spare with its features, and only adds them over time, in a gradual fashion. In fact there are still some Classic Mac OS capabilities that have yet to find their way into Mac OS X. It may well be that they’ll never appear, or that Apple will simply find a different — hopefully better — way of doing things.

Unlike Microsoft, with its committee-based approach, Apple doesn’t appear to build software based on bullet points of features.

One blatant example of Microsoft’s overkill is Entourage 2008, which may be the least changed component of Office 2008. Now I’ve had a love/hate relationship with the program over the years. I like its auto-correct feature when writing email, but I then encounter one of its quirks, and, as the frustration grows, I return to Apple Mail.

In large part, Entourage is descended from Microsoft’s original Mac email application, Outlook Express. That, in turn, contained some of the concepts that originally appeared in Claris Emailer before that application was folded. Indeed, many of the members of the original Emailer programming team went to Microsoft to work on Outlook Express.

To be sure, if you take Outlook Express for the Mac and learn it fully, you’ll understand much of the layout of Entourage. Of course, you have to fold in the calendar and task management feature.

I returned to Entourage a few days ago, when I encountered some difficulties with IMAP email handling in Mail. I contacted the support team at HostGator to find out why I was getting such weird prompts as “You exceeded mail quota” when Mail tried to parse junk mail or when I attempted to move a message from one IMAP folder to another.

Before you ask, my actual email storage quota, which I can configure myself since we lease the entire Web server, is twice what we actually use. The problem that confounded HostGator’s admins was that the message was random, and not always repeated. They responded that they felt Entourage had superior IMAP handling, so I gave it a try. Alas, the error messages still appeared, but they were more obscure, such as “Unable to add message to IMAP mailbox.” Yes, that’s Microsoft for you.

As I navigated through Entourage’s IMAP account settings, I found several times as many as Apple offers, with little, if any, explanation as to what they did and why I’d use them. Indeed, when HostGator’s admins suggested some specific settings, I found that they were not necessarily the defaults, as opposed to Mail, where the proper settings are usually configured automatically if you use the Setup Assistant. Go figure.

Finally, the source of the email setting was traced to a problematic default quota configuration on the server, which was fixed using a function in the Web Host Manager configuration panel. I decided to stick with Entourage for a while to see if really represented a superior solution. Alas, I encountered another long-term problem with the application, the failure to update email messages despite the correct scheduling. In theory, it should check for new messages at the repeating interval you select. In practice, sometimes you have to click on the Inbox of an account for it to update. No amount of rejiggering preferences seems to eliminate the problem, which is random.

Since this Entourage quirk is something I have encountered with every single version, with different email servers, I decided to choose simplicity over needless complexity and unreliability. I’m back to Mail again, and I’m so glad I don’t need to access a MIcrosoft Exchange server, where I would not be able to consider such a move.

And, don’t get me started about the weird errors Keychain Access reports when you run Keychain First Aid after setting up Entourage.