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ATPM 14.08
August 2008




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Apple Talk

by Angus Wong,

Microsoft, Revisited

The Microsoft marketing team is on the war path to clean up “misconceptions” about Vista, with a massive advertising campaign reputedly gunning for Apple’s fabulous “I’m a Mac” series. Well, I say, more power to the Redmond team. Really. If Microsoft has great products, then the world should know, and I say that without sarcasm.

I’m always amused by the propensity of (some) Windows users to simplistically label me a “Mac fan,” as if my choice of platform has less to do with technical practicalities than ethereal trivialities such as peer group identity or chromatic preference. Honestly, my criteria are much simpler than all that: the tools just shouldn’t suck. Now, I know that outside of BBEdit (if I recall, the original “It doesn’t suck” product) great tools might be hard to come by, but somehow there seems a greater number of them on the Mac than Windows, including the Mac platform itself.

This is not to say that I’d neglect to give credit where it’s due. Indeed, I am going to take a break this month from my usual pastime of conjuring up irreverent phrases to annoy the heck out of Microsoft staffers (which by doing so, I entertain myself and, hopefully, many readers). For this particular installment of my textual creativity, I would like instead to highlight choice offerings from Redmond that I’d be proud to be seen using. (The Zune isn’t one of them.)

To start, let’s look at something my fiancée says I spend way too much time with: the Xbox 360. Yes, we know that the Xbox franchise probably would not have gotten as good a start as it did without Halo. And we all know where Halo hailed from: Bungie, originally a Mac-only developer. But we should not discount the very real possibility that the Xbox would have eventually become quite successful even without Halo, primarily because Microsoft can leverage its extensive experience and working relationships with highly talented Windows game developers.

Another thing Microsoft did right was the Xbox Live service. The Xbox Live infrastructure successfully enabled for the first time a highly convenient, easily accessible virtual universe of like-minded gamers, in the comfort of our collective TV rooms. No longer do we need to scour esoteric chat groups to locate other players for our choice of poison. Just turn on the box and go. (Good luck to Sony trying to replicate that experience for the PlayStation 3. That company hasn’t exactly been on top of any of its games, pun intended, in recent years.) Microsoft now has a strong position from which to battle the Wii, the PlayStation 3, and the Apple TV.

But the world’s largest software vendor is not best loved (or despised) for its gaming console. The Windows franchise is immensely more significant and profitable than Redmond’s entire entertainment division. So it is astounding that Microsoft managed to screw up the Vista roll-out so badly. In fact, it is precisely because of Vista’s poor reception that I find myself so impressed by Microsoft Office 2007. Not Office 2008 for the Mac, mind you, but Office 2007 for Windows.

Yes, folks, I am actually saying that I like Office 2007 and even dare to think it’s still the only serious office suite for the enterprise market, iWork included. And the reason for my opinion goes beyond just the newfangled user interface, but let’s talk about that for now. The Microsoft Office team has given Office 2007 a spectacular “geek makeover,” and it works for me. Take Word, for example. Even though there’s still Microsoft’s legendary feature bloat, Word 2007 is the first version of the program since Word 5.1 (released in 1992) that I’ve been excited about. The scribe sharing my corporeal footprint is very discerning about writing tools, and Word 2007 makes me actually happy to use the program and almost forget that I am on Windows (that part I am still unhappy about). In fact, I feel the user interface improvements of Office 2007 have achieved the rare combination of being both functionally efficient and aesthetically pleasing; the same sweet spot that we love the Mac OS for hitting. Office 2007 is ergonomically better than its predecessors and meets (or exceeds) human interface improvements by alternatives.

But the real pièce de résistance is OneNote 2007. I can almost hear the screams of NoteTaker and NoteBook fans that OneNote isn’t that much different from their choice of note-taking software. I agree, but Microsoft has nicely integrated OneNote 2007 functionality into the rest of the suite, and even with Internet Explorer, so capturing notes is quite seamless and convenient. OneNote 2007 shares the ergonomic refinements of the rest of the suite and has become my information-capturing tool of choice. That’s saying quite a lot, for someone who is so gung-ho about the Mac platform, and to be honest I wish I could use all of this on the Mac, rather than put my data at risk on Windows.

Which leads me to a very important point: To use this stuff, I need to run Windows. It’s the old “killer app” battlefield again. It’s the same reason Microsoft spent so much cash and time offing Netscape. It’s the same reason the Java wars were (are?) waged. If you own the user experience, you own the rest of the pie. But wait, there’s more.

Office 2007 is the only version of Office that gives me seamless, reliable compatibility with any older Microsoft office document format. This is the most important takeaway here. Even though it natively uses the highly controversial Microsoft Open Office XML format, you can set Office 2007 to default to the older Office 97–2003 format. For better or (probably) worse, the reality is Microsoft has a hard lock on the most ubiquitous business file formats in the world (except PDF).

I have not seen seamless compatibility with Microsoft office files with iWork (despite Apple’s claims),, or even the Mac’s Office 2008. While those alternative suites generally are able to load files from Word and Excel (and, to a lesser extent, PowerPoint), from what I’ve experienced, there are oftentimes spurious formatting problems that make the transition less than perfect between the platforms and tools. That might be acceptable for personal or academic documents (or environments where you do not exchange files with Microsoft Office users), but it’s a deal breaker for the business world. I wouldn’t, for instance, want an extra carriage return somewhere in an official press release, or a misaligned caption on a product’s datasheet.

So while Apple has been winning numerous battles against the old regime in the “Computing World War Two” of recent years, I feel this is a key area that has yet to be seriously contested. Microsoft, on the other hand, has been quite adept at defending its turf, as can be witnessed by its victory with the OOXML specification.

Ideally, we would be free of proprietary format and protocol locks on our data (including the rendering of the raw data), and be able to choose front-end tools based on their independent merits. But for the time being, Microsoft has a stronghold in the enterprise and can probably withstand a very long siege, even with a growing population of Macintosh hardware clients (which can’t completely get away from running Windows).

As for Web 2.0-based Google tools and iPhone-Exchange interoperability, Microsoft still has a weapon-of-mass-deployment with the Office suite, and seems to be so focused on honing this advantage that the company’s actually produced a quality product, impressing even moi! Microsoft knows that so long as it owns this area, it can always recapture lost ground. I don’t know what Microsoft’s done with its development teams in recent years, but if it could apply the same level of kaizen it had with the Xbox 360 and Office 2007, to its other offerings, maybe many of us would be less unhappy about its dominance of the computing landscape.

As it stands, the saga has yet to play out. That’s the nature of world wars.

Also in This Series

Reader Comments (9)

bonaldi · August 1, 2008 - 22:54 EST #1
You know, Word 2007 is hands-down the best word processor I've used, and makes 5.1 look like an antique. Word 08 on the Mac doesn't come close ... in fact, *nothing* on the Mac comes close.

This pisses me off! How can the Mac not have a world-class .doc-compatible word processor?
Moctod · August 3, 2008 - 16:45 EST #2
[How can the Mac not have a world-class .doc-compatible word processor?]

Because Mac people rely on MS, and MS delivers — nothing.

Maybe Mac people should download and donate to NeoOffice or OOo-Aqua.
Angus Wong · August 3, 2008 - 21:57 EST #3
Hi guys, thanks for commenting.

You know, I have the greatest respect for the MacBU (the Business Unit at Microsoft responsible for Mac products). It's got to be tough to not only churn out great products but also have to work with people that probably consider you at least somewhat disloyal (to the Windows platform).

I am not sure what it entails to port app code from WinOffice to MacOffice. You know, the old OOP "code-reuse" thingie that we've been hearing about since, well, OOP. Maybe it's a b*tch porting Win C++ to Mac ObjC (or just C) but I just don't see why documents can't render 100% exactly on both platforms. Full, seamless WYSIWYG transparency.

Call it the "Turing Test for Office Docs." Whatever. The UI elements don't have to be mirrors between the platforms but I don't see why it's not possible to display, edit and print exactly.

The same company makes the two products fer chrissake! The same entity owns whatever intellectual property is required to do the task.

(Of course, anything beyond technical reasons why it can't be done starts the Conspiracy Theory lights blinking, WRT to the Mac/Win platform wars).
anonymous · August 6, 2008 - 14:38 EST #4
So... The real issue is that we keep using MS products. So stop already!
Angus Wong · August 6, 2008 - 19:57 EST #5
You're partly right: The real issue is that we keep using LOUSY monopolized products and, without significant competition, they aren't going to get better.
anonymous · August 9, 2008 - 12:56 EST #6
Pages works for me. Quick Look in Leopard will let one read .doc files and email attachments sent by well-meaning friends. :)
Angus Wong · August 13, 2008 - 02:16 EST #7

"More specifically, Microsoft said Word should now launch more quickly and tables will no longer included random instances of bold text. Other changes improve the display of form fields and the reliability of headers and footers in the word processing application."
Rich · August 14, 2008 - 10:34 EST #8
I have used MS Word/Office since 1990 even reaching the level of expert on both Mac and Windows versions. But recently on my MBP Office 2004 went bad and have not been able to launch anything except Excel; so I uninstalled it. Between NeoOffice and iWork 08 I have everything i need for exchanging files. Also, I have been using the OpenOffice 3.0 Beta and have been pleasantly surprised. So I won't upgrade to Office 2008, and would think twice about installing Windows on the MBP just to get Office 2007.
Andrei · August 17, 2008 - 10:24 EST #9
I have been trying for a good 2-3 months already to get used to Office 2007, but the longer I use it, the more frustrating it becomes. Certainly, there are some nice features (more seamless editing of pictures you paste into your Word document, a much better PivotTable interface in Excel), I still find it annoying that (a) ribbon takes so much of my screen and (b) keeps a whole bunch of stuff I hardly ever use available, while (c) obscuring things I really am using (try switching PowerPOint presentation windows).

Now, that said -- Office 2008 on a Mac is an even further abomination. On my iMac G5 it is by far the slowest to start application of all. So slow is it, I think I am going to "upgrade" it back to Office 2004.

Agree with some of your points on Xbox, although I think that Microsoft's ability to sustain losses on sale on console was a very important factor. Not the most important one, yet still one of major.

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