Microsoft Office for Mac: a best-in-class product

by Alan Zisman (c) 2002
First published in Business in Vancouver,  Issue #642 February 12-18, 2002, The High Tech Office column

Sometimes, Microsoft and Apple seem like a dysfunctional old married couple; they often fight and they've got the kids taking sides. But you know that down deep, each of them really needs the other.

Microsoft needs a strong Apple to show the world that Microsoft doesn't have a complete monopoly on desktop computing. And Apple often seems to function as the research-and-development team for Microsoft and the rest of the PC industry. Besides, it's long been suggested that Microsoft makes more profit, on average, from each Mac owner than it does from each PC owner.

Apple needs Microsoft to continue to develop and market products for the Mac. The availability of Mac versions of Microsoft Office in particular, lets Mac users exchange files with their PC counterparts, and lets the Mac continue to appear to be a credible alternative in offices and schools.

So with Apple touting its OS X operating system as its future, the release this fall of an OS X version of Microsoft Office was welcomed as a vote of confidence by the software giant in Apple's new direction. 

Office v. X ($699) required a year's effort by Microsoft's Macintosh Business Unit to "carbonize" Mac Office 2001: rewrite it to support the new operating system. Along the way, they brushed up Office's interface, bringing it in line with OS X's Aqua look and feel, complete with new and colourful buttons, icons, and dialogue boxes. The result is the most attractive and most fun-to-use version of Office for any platform.

The programs are able to take advantage of Aqua support for transparency, not only for the eye candy of see-through menus and dialogue boxes, but to add to charts and graphics in Excel, PowerPoint and Word.

Despite the attractive new look however, Office v. X does not come with an overwhelming number of new features compared with its predecessor, Office 2001. There are some nice improvements, though.

The new version of Word makes it easy, for example, to format or spell-check unconnected blocks of text, by selecting them using the Command key. Word's new Contact tool bar makes it easy to exchange addresses with Entourage (Mac Office's e-mail and calendar application), even when Entourage isn't open. A "clear formatting" option nicely resets a selection to the paragraph default.

A long-time Word feature, the ability to edit keyboard commands, has finally been added to Excel, as has the ability to import FileMaker database data. Unfortunately, Excel still can't import data from Microsoft's own Windows Office database, Access, and there still isn't a Mac version of Access.

PowerPoint can now save its files into a neat little package, and does a better job exporting presentations to Quicktime, but is otherwise little changed from the previous version.

Entourage, which premiered in Office 2001, gets a beefed-up calendar and an all-new interface, making it easier to manoeuvre between e-mail, calendar, and address list views. Microsoft is waiting for Palm's release of OS X-native software before making it possible to sync Entourage data with Palm PDAs.

Microsoft has done a great job of making Office v. X look and work with Apple's stylish OS X. The previous version, Office 2001, also gets the job done in the new operating system, even though it only runs in that OS's old-style Classic-mode. Users getting a new Mac and wanting to work in OS X will find the newest Office a must-have. But despite the new version's classy appearance, there's little to make owners of Office 2001 feel like they need to rush out and upgrade.

  • A note for users of PC office suites: Both Microsoft and Corel have recently released service packs for Microsoft Office XP and Word Perfect Office 2002 respectively. Each promises additional security, stability and compatibility. 

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan