Bill Gates used to brag that Microsoft (MSFT) made more money from each Macintosh sold than Apple Computer (AAPL) did. Apple's hardware is now plenty profitable, but Microsoft software remains an important part of the Mac ecosystem. Microsoft's latest effort for the Mac, Office 2004, could even persuade some corporate technology managers to take a fresh look at Apple.
The new release ought to quell doubts about the future of Mac Office -- a suite of programs with a turbulent history. Microsoft actually launched the suite in 1989, before a Windows version was available. When Steve Jobs returned to the company in 1997, Microsoft signed a five-year contract to continue developing Mac software, but that lapsed in 2002. In the meantime, relations between the companies were strained by Apple's decision to develop a browser and e-mail program in competition with Internet Explorer and Outlook Express and a presentation software called Keynote that rivals Microsoft's PowerPoint. But friction aside, the Mac is good business for Microsoft. And with Office 2004, Mac users for the first time in years have an office suite that is at least the equal of its Windows equivalent. Windows Office has increasingly emphasized integration with Windows Server, which interests corporate technology managers much more than end users. The Mac product keeps the focus on individuals and workgroups.
FOR CORPORATE MAC USERS, the most important feature of the new Office is Entourage, the e-mail, contact, and calendar program. Entourage 2004 brings nearly all the features of Microsoft's Exchange enterprise mail and scheduling service to the Mac. It will only work with recent versions of Exchange server with Web access enabled, and it fetches mail more slowly than Outlook on Windows. But Entourage supports the collaborative scheduling that is a mainstay in most offices that use Exchange. Finally having the functional equivalent of Outlook makes Macs running the OS X operating system better corporate citizens.
The changes in other Office components are less dramatic, but important. Word, Excel, and PowerPoint share a compatibility checker that can warn you about any difficulties that might arise if your document is loading in older versions of Mac or Windows programs going back to Office 97.
Word gains a free-form note-taking option that allows it to work somewhat like OneNote, the handy Windows Office add-on. As in OneNote, you can take notes while recording a conversation or interview on the computer. Those notes are linked to the recording time code, making it easy to find the relevant point in the audio.
PowerPoint has always been a bit of a poor relation in Mac Office. Perhaps spurred by Keynote, Microsoft has surpassed the Windows version. The biggest improvement is an enhanced formatting palette, which puts all the tools you need to create a PowerPoint slide in one handy window.
Mac Office is not without its annoyances. For example, when you install it, the program automatically puts an icon for each component in the dock -- the program picker at the bottom of the OS X display. They are easy enough to remove, but their unbidden presence is rude.
Office 2004 comes in two editions, standard ($400, $230 as an upgrade) and students and teachers ($150, licensed for educational use on up to three computers.) Later this year, a professional edition will add a new version of Virtual PC, which allows most Windows programs to run on a Mac.
I believe that for ease of use, reliability, and security, Mac OS X is the best desktop operating system available today. Still, the Mac is not a good choice if you depend heavily on a Windows-only application. But with a more compatible version of Office, plus Virtual PC to run the occasional Windows program, the Mac should get new life in business. It has definitely earned the chance.
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By Stephen H. Wildstrom