Revisiting Microsoft Office for Mac

October 30th, 2012

I have a client who spent years preparing reports in Microsoft Word for local educational systems. He had devised a fairly sophisticated workflow that involved using a keyboard shortcut program to trigger such functions as application launching, opening a new page, and choosing the proper text format.

Now before we go on, let me also tell you that the client in question was using Word 5.1a, a version dating back to the early 1990s, Tempo II Plus, a macro program from that decade, and a vintage Power Mac G4 running Mac OS 9.2.

True, he also had a more recent iMac running OS 10.5, and Office 2008. But he seldom used the newer Microsoft productivity suite because it didn’t have any new features that he needed. The rest, to him, was needless fluff and not at all helpful to his work. Besides, that macro utility, and the company that created it, Affinity Microsystems, were history. Indeed, the client developed a personal association with the owner of that defunct company, so he could get assistance in making new macros, and troubleshooting.

Obviously, Microsoft continues to upgrade Office every few years, adding still more needless features. For Windows 8, the forthcoming Office 2013 even lets you, after a fashion, access the controversial ribbon toolbars via touch. They expand, you see, when you tap them. Talk about desperation.

Now I do attempt to keep my apps up to date, so I do have Office 2011 for the Mac. While Word 2011 seems a tad snappier than previous versions, it is still quite bloated, and the ribbon, though less invasive on the Mac version, is poorly done. The artwork is badly crafted, functions aren’t always clear, and buttons seem randomly placed and shaped. I cannot actually think of any new feature, of the few that are offered, that actually justifies the upgrade. As of today, Microsoft’s only concession to Lion and Mountain Lion is support for full screen apps. Auto Save and Version are still missing in action.

So I read an article from TheStreet, suggesting that Microsoft Office is the centerpiece that will determine whether the Surface tablet gains traction against the iPad.

Up till now, Microsoft’s plans about the future of Office on the Mac platform were considered crucial to its success. Let’s not forget that controversial appearance of Bill Gates, via satellite, at a 1990s Macworld Expo keynote, where he was promised that Office development would continue. After all, without Office, businesses wouldn’t buy Macs, period. But the author of that article, TheStreet’s Rocco Pendola, after working with Apple’s iWork office suite, opted to cancel his order for Office.

Understand that the various iWork apps do not have quite the number of features of Microsoft’s productivity suite. While there is file compatibility between iWork and Office of a sort, some of the special features from the latter won’t fully translate. Consider writers and editors that depend on Word’s Track Changes feature. There’s a similar capability in Pages, but the conversion is not perfect. That could be the deal breaker.

In general, Apple’s lightweight office suite is quite capable and, in the case of the Keynote presentation app, considerably better than PowerPoint in most key respects. Rather than concentrate on features most people will never use, Apple’s decision to focus on what makes for a capable word processor, spreadsheet and presentation apps might be sufficient to convert many users from Office if total compatibility isn’t essential.

Unfortunately, Microsoft Office is still required in many businesses; the promise of file compatibility isn’t enough. While more and more Macs are making it in the enterprise, the loss of Office could be the deal breaker. Perhaps that explains why it seems that Apple is walking on eggshells when it comes to updating and promoting iWork. The last major update was released in 2009, an eternity in the software businesses. While there have been occasional rumors of an iWork upgrade, there have only been minor updates, most recently to add support for Lion and Mountain Lion.

Sometimes you wonder if Apple even cares about iWork, but you can see where they went as far as developing an iOS version. That presents a real commitment. There are even occasional published reports that Microsoft wants to bring Office to the iPad and iPhone, while at the same time the presence of Office on the Surface may be an important factor in persuading some people to buy that tablet.

On the other hand, if Microsoft perceives that an iOS version would be far more profitable, particularly if the Surface tanks. As much as some of you may want to see Apple deliver a version of iWork that would encourage Microsoft to leave the platform, it’s still not certain that the effort would be worth the risk.

Then again, it’s all about money. If ongoing Office for Mac sales don’t meet Microsoft’s standards, you can bet they’ll take their business elsewhere regardless of the status of iWork. For now, I don’t expect to see any changes, but a really compelling up iWork upgrade would be really welcomed.

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3 Responses to “Revisiting Microsoft Office for Mac”

  1. Andrew says:

    I’d much rather see Office for iPad than an improved iWork on the Mac. Sure, Office has added a bunch of useless stuff over the years, but for the most part, techniques I learned one or two decades ago still work in the current version. More important than that, Word documents with complex formatting MUST be opened in Word. Moving from one application to another often (always with legal pleadings) breaks that complex formatting.

    If Office disappeared from the Mac platform, I would be forced to move my entire office to Windows (thankfully not hard with Boot Camp). Keeping my main application is far more important than keep my OS of choice.

    • @Andrew, You raise the most critical problem, which is file/format compatibility. Unless there is some workflow issue that is very, very Word centric, would you consider trying Pages if the file conversion was 100%?


  2. Andrew says:

    I have tried pages and actually like. I like Nisus Writer Pro even better. Its not a matter of liking or not liking something, its a matter of the need to retrain myself AND ALL OF MY EMPLOYEES to the point where productivity is not lost, and that is only if we have 100% file format compatibility.

    Sadly, we will likely never know, because 100% compatibility is highly unlikely. I have to keep a current version of WordPerfect around as well as some attorneys still cling to that application. I am able to use Macs exclusively because I only run into WordPerfect documents a few times per quarter at most, while switching out of MS Word would be a major headache.

    Fortunately, I have no real desire for a Word alternative. With the exception of Word 6 for Mac and Word XP for Windows, I’ve never had any major complaints about any version. Yes, it is a poor desktop publishing application, but I don’t do desktop publishing. It is a poor choice for very long documents (like books), but again, I just don’t do that. For what most business people (including attorneys) do most of the time, which is working with documents that are less than 20 or 30 pages long and are revised, annotated, exchanged, edited and re-used, Word is an excellent program. It launches quickly, doesn’t crash too often, has abundant (and consistent) keyboard shortcuts, and is highly customizable (the ribbon is hidden easily). It also (now) supports the retina display on my MacBook Pro, but also looks good on the non-retina display of my MacBook Air.

    Even if I didn’t need 100% file format compatibility, I would probably stick with Word just because so many people are so familiar with it and it generally does what it was designed to do without much fuss.

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