Microsoft Reaffirms Mac Commitment

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Since 1997, Microsoft has released three major updates to Office, including an OS X-native version of the productivity suite. The company has added a personal information manager, Entourage, to Office, while revving its Internet Explorer browser to run on OS X. And Microsoft has no plans to stop putting out Mac products any time soon, the head of the company's Mac division insisted Wednesday -- whether or not it renews a soon-to-expire technology alliance with Apple.

In a talk at Microsoft's Mountain View, California, campus, Kevin Browne, general manager of the company's Mac Business Unit, outlined future plans for the platform, which include developing software solely for OS X from now on and incorporating Microsoft's .Net strategy into its Mac products. But Browne largely focused on reaffirming his company's commitment to producing products for the Mac OS.

"Microsoft is feeling like this is a good, promising business to pursue," Browne said in an exclusive interview with Macworld . "And Apple appears to be doing everything that they need to do to assure that we continue to see it that way. So take comfort in the way that we've pursued this business over the last five years, not necessarily whether there's been a technology agreement."

The technology agreement in question is the five-year pact Apple and Microsoft signed in 1997. With that agreement set to expire this August, Microsoft has faced mounting questions about its future plans in the Mac market.

"Ever since we signed our five-year technology agreement with Apple back in 1997, we've been answering the question, 'What's going to happen after August of 2002?'" Browne said. "So I guess it's not surprising that we're starting to hear the question again."

At this point, it's unclear if Microsoft and Apple will renew the agreement, though to hear Browne tell it, inking a deal isn't a priority for the software giant. "We certainly haven't gone after an agreement at this point," he said.

But Browne insisted support for the Mac runs deeper than any agreement at Microsoft, which can trace its presence on the platform back to the earliest days of the Mac,

"The technology agreement that we signed with Apple does not today drive nor has it ever driven Microsoft support for the Mac," Browne said. "We got into this business before we signed the technology agreement with Apple, and we'll continue doing the business after because we've said we've got to approach the business like a business and do all the right things for our customers."

From Rivals to Partners

Much has changed since Apple and Microsoft announced their broad patent cross-licensing pact five years ago -- most notably, Apple's position. In the summer of 1997, Steve Jobs had just returned to the company, with the hope of helping it regain some of its financial footing. The agreement with Microsoft was one way to do that. On top of a $150 million investment in Apple, Microsoft committed to ongoing development of Office, Internet Explorer, and other programs for the Mac. Apple agreed to bundle Internet Explorer on its computers, while providing Microsoft with improved access to its application programming interfaces.

Both companies have gone above and beyond the original terms of the deal, Browne said. "For the past four-and-a-half years, we've released three major versions of Office. That's above the contract requirements. We've released a native Mac OS X version of Office. That was never required by the contract. We put out world-class e-mail clients like Outlook Express 5 and Entourage. We invested in true Mac-like appearance and behavior -- never required by the contract. We put in features that are only found in the Mac versions of our products. We've supported Apple technologies like QuickTime... We did all of these things, and many more things, simply because they were the right thing to do for our customers."

Apple has done its part, too, Browne added. "I believe that, along with Adobe, we are among the first to ever hear about anything [Apple] is doing," he said. "We get very early, very good engagement with Apple engineers on specifics. The things that Microsoft was most concerned with, in terms of being able to pursue a good business on this platform, have definitely been addressed."

Betting on X

Microsoft believes it has shown its commitment to the Mac in ways that go beyond the technology pact with Apple. The company's Mac Business Unit has about 150 employees that work solely on Mac products. Microsoft was among the first group of developers to pledge support for Mac OS X; it shipped a native version of Office -- a critical application for many Mac users -- roughly six months after OS X's debut.

And Microsoft intends to take that commitment one step further by shifting its Mac focus to OS X-only development.

"We're betting the whole business on OS X," Browne said. "We're committing to doing our work on OS X-only across our product line. We won't do another major release of any of our products on Mac OS 8 and 9. If Apple fails with OS X, so do we. We go down the drain, too. Hopefully people can take that as commitment, rather than a signed agreement."

Microsoft made the decision to focus future product development on OS X because it believes that's where the Mac platform is headed. And the company sees a great opportunity if it can help move Mac users to adopting the new operating system. "We're going to bet entirely on OS X so customers see there's a commitment from other [developers] that that's the direction to go," Browne said. "We're trying to do as much as we can, in terms of our own marketing resources, to put focus on OS X."

Microsoft Casts its .Net

Wednesday also marked the first time Microsoft described how its .Net strategy might affect its Mac products. Microsoft describes .Net as a set of software technologies for connecting information, people, systems, and devices. Microsoft sees the strategy as a way of providing software and services via the Internet.

"There are some very difficult problems to solve today, and we don't have very good tools for solving them," Browne said. "How do you share documents across the entire virtual team of people? How do you create a single task list where everyone knows what everyone else is working on? How do you keep people up to date on where everyone is with each of their assigned tasks?"

The answer, Microsoft believes, is integration through .Net services. "We can begin to resolve some of those [problems], and provide the next set of compelling features for the products we create," Browne said.

Microsoft founder Bill Gates says the .Net initiative will affect every piece of software the company produces. So what will that mean for Microsoft's Mac customers? Browne sees it as a way for Macs and PCs to become better integrated. A Mac-based design shop, for example, could use .Net-enabled software from Microsoft to more easily coordinate with clients, partners, and suppliers.

"Our direction with .Net is to try and connect the client software we produce to this great set of Web services that Microsoft and its platform partners are starting to produce," Browne said.

Microsoft isn't planning on porting .Net development tools over to the Mac, but rather concentrating on integrating .Net services into its own Mac products. "We don't think it makes sense for Microsoft to get into a battle with Apple for the attentions of Mac [developers] at this point, so you won't see us going and promoting .Net development to Mac [developers]," Browne said. "What you will see us do is build the client connections and maintain an open and accepting attitude so that if Apple does want to come to us and make .net part of their developer proposition, we're very open to seeing if they want to make that happen."

The Microsoft name may be .Net, but the technology behind the collection of Internet services is based on Internet standards such as XML and SOAP. And Browne said that his team would consider finding a way to add support for other Net-based services, perhaps through a plug-in architecture, even if those services don't come online until after Microsoft's .Net-enabled software has shipped.

The Future Is Now

The .Net initiative is a long-term goal for Microsoft. More immediately, look for the company to put out a service release of Office v.X by early June that will include "over 1,000 behavior tweaks, bug fixes, and performance improvements," Browne said. "In some cases, the performance improvements are dramatic. Graphics-heavy PowerPoint presentations are much, much faster."

The forthcoming Office update will also add some features, including anti-aliased text throughout the suite and ODBC support. Word and Excel will be able to bring in information from FileMaker servers as easily as they do local FileMaker databases. Microsoft also hopes to include an improved Palm Sync feature in the upcoming service release; if not, it will be available soon after that update.

In addition to a new version of MSN Messenger slated for a late spring-early summer release, Microsoft also has begun planning its next major updates for Office and Internet Explorer. With Microsoft typically spacing major releases 18 to 24 months apart, new versions of those applications could appear in 2003.

Past Office releases have focused on making the productivity suite more Mac-like than ever. "I think we've done as much work as we can do there," said Browne, adding that the focus will now shift to making the Macs more powerful by helping it work more easily with other computers and devices.

Browne calls Internet Explorer "the best of the current Mac OS X browsers, but it's not where we want it to be." Microsoft is looking to improve performance, security, privacy, and HTML and XML rendering in future updates.

"We could help out our Web developer customers more by making IE for Mac render more like IE for Windows so you don't have to do as many branching kind of actions in your code to make sure your Web page shows up right," Browne said.

Less certain is the future of Outlook Express, and whether the free e-mail client will join Microsoft's other applications in the brave, new world of OS X -- especially since Apple already includes the free Mail application with every copy of Mac OS X. "Right now, we're looking at the whole product mix, and we're trying to determine where something like that would fit, in terms of the number of resources it needs and the potential upside for us," Browne said.

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