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    Microsoft update of Office for Macs does more than just translate Windows

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2004 First published in Business in Vancouver July 27-August 2, 2004; issue 770 High Tech Office column

    Though they may grumble about Microsoft, most Mac users have a copy of Microsoft Office on hand, using Word, Excel, and PowerPoint just like most their Windows counterparts.

    A decade ago, Microsoft tried to make Office look and feel the same on both platforms. The result, Office 4.2, was a pretty good Windows version but the Mac version was slow and bloated. Since then, while letting Mac and Windows users share their work, Microsoft has set its Macintosh Business Unit free.

    Recent versions of MS Office for Windows have included new features primarily of interest to corporate IT departments. While the previous Mac version did little besides make the previous Mac Office 2001 work under Apple's new OS X operating system, the newly released Mac-only Office 2004 ($550, $350 upgrade) adds features aimed squarely at individual users. Many of those features are not available in Office's Windows versions.

    Entourage, like Outlook in the Windows version, started life as an e-mail and calendar module. The new Entourage gains better spam filtering, archiving of e-mail and schedules, and support for Microsoft Exchange servers. A new Entourage feature, Project Center, can be accessed from the other Office modules allowing users to build projects, complete with deadlines and assigned tasks, linking relevant notes, documents, e-mail, and contacts. Projects can be shared with other Mac users of Office 2004, aiding collaboration.

    While word processor users haven't seen many big new features since real-time spell checking, Word 2004 in the new Mac suite of Office programs gets a new notebook view, mimicking a lined page. Aiming at making it easy to type in notes and organize an outline, it features a simplified toolbar and an easy way to record audio clips and link them to a Word document.

    The new Excel gains a useful Page Layout view, making it possible to work with a spreadsheet while seeing how it will look on the printed page.

    PowerPoint, under pressure to compete with Apple's Keynote slick presentation application gains a set of new templates and animations. Perhaps more useful will be the new presenter tools, allowing presenters to view speakers' notes and to reorganize slides on the fly while the audience only sees the presentation.

    Also handy are compatibility reports, noting whether saved documents will appear properly to users running a range of both Mac and Windows office versions.

    The new Office for Macs isn't too proud to borrow from good ideas that originated in the Windows version. For example, like its Windows cousin, Word for Macs now checks how to format pasted-in text, offering to preserve the original formatting or to make it match the destination. And it finally breaks with the previous version's refusal to save long file names. Entourage gains a three-column view similar to Outlook 2003.

    Both the Windows and Mac versions of Office come in several different editions. On the Windows side, users of the higher-priced Professional package get Microsoft's Access database; small business version users get a copy of the Publisher page design program. There are no Macintosh versions of either program; instead Mac Office 2004 Pro will bundle Virtual PC, allowing Mac users to load a Windows operating system and applications, and run them in a window on their Mac.

    Office Professional 2004 has not yet been released, as Microsoft works on making Virtual PC compatible with Apple's new G5-powered PowerMacs. Mac Office 2004 also lacks the SharePoint collaboration tools built into recent Windows versions, used in some large organizations.

    As with the Windows version, the most affordable Mac Office 2004 version is the Student/Teacher edition (about $210). This version can be legally purchased by anyone with a student or teacher in the family and can be installed onto up to 3 home computers.

    While lacking some corporate must-have features, Office 2004 sets a new standard for elegance and ease of use for productivity software for individual users. Only on a Mac? Pity!

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