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Is Office Still Relevant on the Mac?

As Microsoft develops Office 2013 for Windows, there is no news as yet about a successor to Office 2011 for the Mac. A year after Lion appeared, Mac Office still doesn’t fully support the new features, and now we’re in the Mountain Lion era. At best, you will find full screen support in some apps, such as Word 2011. But that’s as far as it goes.

This flies in the face of Microsoft’s original promise, made a year ago, where support was promised for Auto Save and Version. Consider a story in PCMag.com. The author’s conclusion, based on conversations with Microsoft is that, “When they may come to Office for Mac, however, remains uncertain at best.”

Very uncertain. So uncertain that Microsoft isn’t talking about that promise a year out. But the media usually doesn’t call Microsoft out on broken promises, so they will continue to be made. Compare that to what Apple represents about a new product or service. More often than not, the promise is fulfilled. Sure, there are legitimate arguments to be made about whether things are truly better. iCloud, for example, remains highly flaky, with occasional email outages, and a notorious inability for contacts to be reliably synced from OS X to iOS and back again.

Auto Save can also be controversial. To some, it was a step backwards, even though having the OS automatically save your documents — at least on apps updated for the new OS — is a good thing. But the loss of the Save As feature in Lion — since restored in Mountain Lion — was roundly criticized.

But that takes us way beyond the scope of this article, which is whether we really need Microsoft Office on the Mac platform anymore. Yes, I grant that, if you work at a company that requires Office, there’s no real choice. You might look at other apps that promise compatibility, but you’ll soon see the two-way path isn’t always reliable.

Take Pages, from the iWork suite from Apple. At $20 from the Mac App Store, it’s a real bargain. Pages is quite a useful word processor, with adequate desktop publishing capabilities. It’s easy to use, and, as you might expect, fully complaint with key Mountain Lion features.

Despite the lower price, you may find Pages less satisfactory. For some reason, it takes fully twice as long to launch as Word 2011 on my late 2009 iMac. Fidelity with Word documents is mixed. Text transfer is seamless, fonts and layouts less so, and there is the ability to track document changes required by publishers. It may work, or it may be less accurate.

If you are moving your entire workflow to Pages, however, it may prove satisfactory except for documents that need to retain 100% formatting compatibility with the original Word versions.

When it comes to Excel users, those who rely on the most sophisticated features may not find them in Numbers, so the switchover will remain a non-starter. The same may be true in moving from PowerPoint to Keynote.

There are other alternatives, such as the open source OpenOffice, and a number of really flexible standalone word processors that may prove more useful if you can cope with possible document compatibility concerns when importing from Word. Nisus Writer (Express or Pro) and Mellel offer a number of unique features that cater to different segments of the market. A quick online search, or just browsing through the Mac App Store, will reveal some useful Word alternatives.

When it comes to email, I’ve never been able to live consistently within Outlook 2011. Sure, it may offer better compatibility with Microsoft Exchange than Apple Mail, but the cost is a bloated app with those annoying ribbons and lethargic performance. One notable change brought by installing Lion or Mountain Lion is the inability to import accounts from Mail. With all their resources, Microsoft’s Mac Business Unit still hasn’t figured out how to accomplish that task. The ability to sync your Outlook contact information with iCloud never seems to work, although there is actually a preference for Sync Services. But I haven’t found a way to bring up any of my accounts to sync, nor does Outlook recognize the data from Mountain Lion’s Contacts app.

After using Outlook for a couple of hours, you may find yourself longing for Mail, which is sleeker, faster, and an all-around superior app.

Certainly, Microsoft appears to be running out of ways to make Office more compelling. The most notable change in Office 2013 for Windows is half-hearted support for touch. But it appears to be limited to expanding the ribbons to improve your aim if you choose to activate those functions with your fingers. What a waste!

Past swapping Outlook for Entourage, and simplifying a few features along the way, the value of Office 2011 over Office 2008 is questionable. Other than expanding the ribbon and making some minor performance improvements, the feature list in Office 2011 isn’t terribly extensive. And don’t bother to give me the checklist. I know all about it, and there’s nothing that interests me. Indeed, removing some functions from the menu bar and placing them in the ribbon is a step back in my opinion.

At least Mac users don’t have to contend with those dreadful tiles from the interface formerly known as Metro. But if Microsoft has their way, that, too, might change if there is ever a successor to Office 2011.