By Charles Haddad Microsoft's Office suite of productivity software has never been, as the English say, a "looker." The company's programmers are famous -- or infamous, depending on your point of view -- for stressing function over form. They strived to cram every new version of Office with more and more features. Never mind that some of them didn't work as advertised or that most people used only 20% of what's there. "Bigger is better" has long been the mantra at Microsoft.
Now comes Microsoft's adaptation of Office to Apple's new OS X operating system. And for the first time, function has taken a backseat to style. Never has Office looked so good. Every window is striped in elegant gray. Buttons throb an aqua blue, and windows become transparent as you drag them across the screen.
Best of all, you can strip away the ever growing clutter of toolbars, floating palettes, and dialogue boxes from every application, whether Word, Excel, Entourage, or PowerPoint. You can make Word, the bloated grandfather of all Microsoft applications, look as clean, simple, and inviting as OS 9's SimpleText or OS X's TextEdit applications. Now that's progress.
THEY'RE GETTING IT. Office remains, however, a giant. That's true in terms of both importance and hard-disk space. I can't possibly dissect it all in one column, so, over the next month, I'll take the suite apart piece by piece. I'll begin, though, with an overview of the changes that affect the entire package.
The most important to me is a change in outlook reflected in Office X. At long last, I think the company's chief programmers are beginning to understand that less is more. The trend began with Office 2001, with Microsoft making strides in simplifying the programs and making them easier to use. Now, Microsoft has used the innovations of OS X to further simplify Office.
Nearly every icon -- and there are some 700 new ones -- is photo-realistic in its clarity. That makes them easier to see and understand. When closed, windows and programs swoosh like a genie retreating into his bottle. That helps your eye catch where programs are stored on toolbars and OS X's new dock feature, Apple's adaptation of the Windows Start menu. This may seem like a small change, but it's important. One of the biggest complaints about Office has been that many of its features are too hard to find. That's still true for some of them, but the clear icons and "genie effect" make it a little easier.
LAYERS AND SHEETS. Part of what gives this version of Office sharper graphics and effects is Microsoft's decision to adopt OS X's so-called Quartz 2-D drawing layer. That's what gives the suite's windows and dialogue boxes their transparency. It's also a big help in designing Web pages, newsletters, and other graphic-heavy work. Shapes have a smooth, finished appearance on-screen. And you can see through several layers of graphics at the same time.
Another stylish OS X change adopted by Office are sheets -- transparent dialogue boxes that slide down from under the title bar of a window. They ask whether you want to print, save, etc. No longer does such a request lock up your computer until you answer it. Each sheet and its request is tied only to the file you're working with. So you can choose not to answer and keep working on something else or work on one file while another file is saving or printing.
In years past, Office has been an unruly, 800-pound gorilla, inserting all kinds of files, preferences, and extensions wherever it wanted on your Mac. Such behavior led to all kinds of problems: Office crashing continually, Office crashing other programs, or even Office taking down your entire Mac. Not everyone has had these experiences, but many have.
ITS OWN PLAYPEN. Beginning with Office 2001, Microsoft began taming the suite to be a better citizen on your Mac, removing extensions and the like from Office's operations. That process has continued with the latest version, with the addition of OS X's memory-protection technology. In OS X, every application is relegated to its own separate digital playpen. That prevents any software from tipping over any of the playpens of its brethren.
Mac users have long awaited this feature, known as protected memory. And the new Office suite demonstrates the power of finally getting it. Not once, in a week or so of heavy use, has Office crashed another program or taken down OS X in the few times it locked up. Any long-time user of Office knows what a milestone that represents.
Some would argue that this stability alone is worth the $200 price to upgrade (or $450 for first-time users). I still counsel, however, that you shouldn't rush out and buy Office yet. Already, the price has dipped some. The retail upgrade price has fallen from the original $270. And through its Web site, Microsoft is now offering users the right to upgrade individual programs of the suite, such as Word, for only $149.
Office X is far from perfect, and I'll deal with the weaknesses as I review the suite's individual programs. But the good news here -- and it will outweigh the collective sum of all the little problems -- is that Microsoft has used OS X as a vehicle to truly improve its flagship software. Haddad, Atlanta-based correspondent for BusinessWeek, is a longtime Apple Computer buff. Follow his weekly Byte of the Apple column, only on BW Online