Pro File: Office Mates

Microsoft and Kevin Browne have big plans for the Mac platform -- even as the software giant's five-year technology pact with Apple expires this summer. All of the Mac products coming out of Redmond from now on will only run on Mac OS X -- a sign of Microsoft's ongoing commitment to Apple's future. Meanwhile, the company is trying to figure out how the Mac fits into its .Net initiative -- a set of software technologies for connecting information, people, systems, and devices. The responsibility for carrying out Microsoft's Mac plans falls on Browne, the 37-year-old general manager of the company's Macintosh Business Unit. Before an April speech reaffirming Microsoft's commitment to the Mac platform, Browne sat down with Macworld to talk about what Mac users can expect from Microsoft in the coming months.

Q: How long have you been with Microsoft?

A: I have been with Microsoft for 11-and-a-half years. I have worked in our field sales force, Excel product marketing and product planning, and MacBU product planning. I contributed to Excel 5, 95, 97, and 2000, as well as every major release MacBU has done for the last 5 years.

Q: When did you start using Macs? Was it before you came to Microsoft?

A: I first began using Macs in college [in 1985]. I wrote a 100-page senior thesis on my roommate's Mac, saving the whole thing on the same floppy as my copy of MacWrite. Those were the days -- we walked to school every day, eight miles up hill each way, through the knee-deep snow; ate dirt and sticks for lunch. We didn't need no pictures in our documents -- we only had text, and by God, we were happy to have that!

Q: What do you like about the Mac platform?

A: The people. Before coming to MacBU, I worked for a long time on Excel and Office, dealing mainly with Windows customers. I found the move to MacBU refreshing in that Mac owners have a real sense of passion and ownership for the platform. They clobber you if you do bad products, but Mac customers also give great positive feedback when you do good products. I spent the first year in MacBU delivering personal mea culpas for Office 4.2, but also I remember the warm applause I received when introducing Office 98.

Q: How has your familiarity with the Mac influenced what you do at Microsoft?

A: I think it's important to understand your customer, and center product decisions on them. When I was working on Excel, I spoke a lot to financial customers -- big banks and brokerages. I understood that they valued recalc speed, spreadsheet customization, and the flexibility and depth of feature implementation. So I tried to influence the product design in those directions. When I talk to Mac customers, I hear different priorities, so I urge our team to take design where it best serves our customers.

Q: The Mac Business Unit has been around for five years now. Has its focus evolved any?

A: There is a huge difference in MacBU today versus five years ago. We started as a team to port one version of Office to the Mac. This was in January 1997, before the [Apple-Microsoft] agreement [in August 1997], before Apple turned it around. We still focus heavily on Office, but we've also expanded our scope to include Internet products that are important to customers. We expanded Office to include an important new app, Entourage, to facilitate communication and information management. We also decided that we weren't going to just port products; we wanted to understand the Mac customer's needs, and make the right products for them. We prioritize feature investments differently. There has also been a huge amount of turnover in our staff, and I think we're a stronger group than we've ever been. We have our own procedures and best practices, our own culture.

Q: What's the Mac division's relationship with the rest of Microsoft like?

A: From a business standpoint, we are like many groups at Microsoft who serve a segment of Microsoft's customer base. We aren't going to make or break the company's financials, but we're important to the overall picture of what Microsoft is providing to customers. We talk to the Office and [Internet Explorer] for Windows teams to ensure we're doing a good job providing compatibility for our Mac customers who work with Windows users. From a personnel perspective, the cool thing that's happening is that we're getting internal transfers -- people who leave other groups to come and work at MacBU. We have a great track record of building products that people like and giving people broad responsibility, and that's attractive.

Q: How about the relationship with Apple?

A: The relationship between Microsoft and Apple is very good. The breadth of issues we talk about have changed, and hopefully there is some trust built up between us.

Q: You mentioned the Apple-Microsoft technology agreement, which expires in August. What will that mean for future dealings with Apple?

A: It's unfortunate that we even have to talk about this, but it is a reality. Literally, 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?" So I guess it's not surprising that we're starting to hear the question again... Microsoft will continue the Mac business after August, and we intend to continue it on all the same terms that we've pursued in the past. The technology agreement that we signed with Apple does not drive today nor has it ever driven Microsoft support for the Mac. 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.

Q: You said that the technology agreement hasn't driven Microsoft support for Apple. What do you mean?

A: If you take a look at what Microsoft was required to do under the contract, and then compare it to all the things we've done through the term of the agreement, you'll see that the two bear little relation to one another. 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, many more things, simply because they were the right thing to do for our customers. So we hope that people, in absence of a contract, will simply rely on the fact that if you take a look at how we've approached the business you'll see that we always tried to pursue it like a business and do the right thing. Take a look at what we've done and use that as the guide.

Q: Has there ever been any thought of formalizing something with Apple again?

A: I don't know that we've explored seriously any kind of renewed contract or agreement with Apple. We certainly like to have the flexibility to make business decisions whichever way they go. A renewed agreement with Apple that locked us into some course of action would prevent us from maybe taking advantage of another opportunity that Microsoft has. So we certainly haven't gone after an agreement at this point.

Q: Would such an agreement even be necessary given how things have changed, both for Apple as well as Microsoft, since 1997?

A: Certainly, the conditions that the original agreement was written to address are not in place any more. There may be value to each side in coming up with a new agreement. I just can't, for the life of me, tell you what that might be. The conditions today are very different than they were several years ago. The contract talks in depth in several points about Apple having to provide us access to API information. Back in 1997, we were one of the last (developers) that ever heard about it when they were introducing something new. That was a concern that the agreement was written to address. Today, I believe that, along with Adobe, we are among the first to ever hear about anything they're doing. To the extent that Apple pre-briefs anyone on their business these days, 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. Apple has gone well above and beyond the terms of the technology agreement in terms of addressing those concerns.

Q: It seems like the question of whether there's an agreement is moot from Microsoft's point of view.

A: What we're trying to do is talk to customers, mutual customers of Microsoft and Apple, and say, "Please don't get wrapped around the axel about whether there's an agreement." Microsoft is feeling like this is a good, promising business to pursue. 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.

Q: So what's next for Microsoft?

A: In terms of the future, the overall Microsoft strategy is Microsoft.Net. Essentially, Microsoft sees the world as becoming increasingly connected. Whether you're looking at large organizations like Boeing and Ford or whether you're looking at small organizations like a local design firm, you're looking at a world where customers, partners, suppliers, and individuals inside of the organizations are trying to tie very closely together and become more efficient.

Q: How might that affect Mac users?

A: The typical Mac scenario that we encounter when we go out and talk to small businesses, you'll find a small Mac-based design firm, and they're creating the packaging for a large industrial concern. They need to work with people in several different departments inside the large organization. They need to work with that organization's suppliers, sometimes with their customers, sometimes with partner organization. There are some very difficult problems to solve today, and we don't have very good tools to solve them. How do you share documents across the entire virtual team of people who are working on that packaging? How do you create a single task list, where everyone knows what everyone else is working on, and how do you keep people up to date on where everyone is on each of their assigned tasks? How do you send a prototype around and get good quality feedback that your people can use to update the design that you've come up with? How do you schedule meetings? That may be one of the hardest things. All of these things today are done via e-mail attachments, face-to-face meetings, phone calls, which, by nature, are hard and cumbersome. They have a lot of downsides to them. In the case of meetings and phone calls, it's hard to have a record of those things you can rely on. And the problem is fundamentally one of integration. This is the fundamental problem that .Net is being designed to address -- to help people create those links between applications, devices, and people inside organizations, between organizations. If you're an individual who uses a Mac at home, a PC at work, you have a Palm and a cellphone, just integrating those devices is very difficult. Taking your one phone list and having it up to date on all of those devices is a very hard problem. Typically, integration has been something that's designed in at the very end of systems or applications. Your inventory database, your orders database, and your customer relationship management (CRM) system are three different ions of technology that maybe you somehow go back into and design in links. But they're hard to do. You need a whole boatload of consultants. When one of the systems is updated, all of the integration is broken. This is something Microsoft.Net is intended to address, where integration is intrinsic. No matter how the systems are built, they can be wrapped with things that tie them together. These gigantic applications become something Microsoft terms XML Web services.

When you talk about integration, you talk about something that's very near and dear to the hearts of every Mac user out there. Working together with others -- Mac-to-Mac usually works pretty well, but PC-to-Mac, Mac-to-any other device often is a process that's fraught with difficulty and takes time away from other more productive activities. Also, in large organizations, when you're talking to Mac users, you're frequently talking to somebody who does not have access to resources they may need to do their jobs effectively. In the mid-90s, this was the central issue that started driving Macs out of these large organizations. It was just too hard for IT departments to provide similar access to resources for Macs and PCs. So Microsoft.Net is this platform for putting this integration into place, and it spans clients, services, servers that those services run on, this set of tools that provide a common programming model and high-performance development tools. Microsoft.Net is built on a set of fairly simply, very openly defined, and broadly accepted technologies like HTTP, XML, which is going to be used as the universal data format for describing things that you're passing around from one place to another. There will be a set of schema defined for common things that systems might talk about. We're trying to work with the industry to define a single customer schema that will have all the bits of information so that you could send from one system to another system -- neither of which has been taught to work together -- a customer record, and both systems would completely understand that. There's a protocol for getting the different pieces -- the services, the apps, the devices -- to be able to issue instructions across those platforms. There's a protocol called SOAP, the simple object access protocol. There's a platform called UDDI, which is kind of the Yellow Pages for XML Web services, that will allow you to publish your service or to find a service that someone else has built and subscribe to it. All of this is what Microsoft.Net is all about, and Microsoft executives can and will go on at length about each one of these topics, about how they'll fundamentally transform platforms and computing.

Q: Bill Gates has said .Net will affect everything that Microsoft does. What does that mean for your division?

What's germane to us in the Macintosh Business Unit is that there is this Microsoft.Net platform. This provides a great opportunity for the Mac Business Unit to take some of those problems about integrating Macs into a PC world or integrating the Macs of one company with the PCs of another company, and we can begin to resolve some of those and provide the next set of compelling features for the products that we create. Our direction with .Net is to try and connect the client software we produce today to this great set of Web services that Microsoft and its platform partners are beginning to produce so that you get a tremendous amount of value.

Q: Could you give us an example?

A: One of the fundamental services that we talk about is .Net My Services. Think about a set of data resources that can work on behalf of any individual user. You'll either sign up with Microsoft or one of its partners, perhaps an ISP. There'll also be servers you can install and run inside of a corporate firewall to run .Net My Services locally. Each user who sets up an account will be given a set of resources like a calendar, task list, contact list, in box, documents folder, and so forth. That's their piece of data. They can provide permissions to other users. Theoretically, you can even take a project and set up a .Net My Services account for a project, so there will be a single shared calendar for all the people that are associated with that project. A .Net My Services should sit out there as a service that Microsoft's client software can talk to in the same way we talk to other PCs, other servers, other devices today. Think of being able to synchronize not only with your Palm-based handheld from Entourage, but also with the .Net My Calendar, so that all your most up-to-date information is just sitting out there for anyone you provide with access to consult if they're trying to schedule a meeting with you. That crosses company boundaries. One of the .Net My Services has to do with lists. You can take that and format it as a task list with progress fields with the person who is then assigned to a task. That list is something you could provide access to all the people on the project. They can just consult that one thing. It could be synchronized. You could actually access that through your browser, or you could access that through, perhaps, a Task List view in Entourage. This is the direction we're going, and we see this fundamentally enabling very new ways of tackling this integration task we know exists today. .Net is a huge strategy. Our part is going to be a fairly little part. It's the client part. 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]. We won't step in and say, "Apple's telling you all this Cocoa stuff. What you actually want to do is this other thing." You won't see us port Digital Studio.Net to the Mac. You won't see us port the servers to the Mac, or the .Net framework. What you will see us do is build the client connections, and we'll maintain a very open and accepting attitude to 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.

Q: Where do you go from here with .Net?

A: We're trying to establish and clarify the strategy we're pursuing. We're trying to get feedback from customers, partners, and analysts to see if this is the right way to go. We're beginning to build the building blocks we need, the high-quality Messenger client, the XML and SOAP implementations that have all the APIs we need, authentication through the Passport mechanisms. And we're focusing on a lot of different scenarios that will guide our way to implement this technology, so that it actually solves problems for customers.

Q: That's .Net. What about OS X? How does that figure into your future plans?

A: We were among the earliest and most vocal supporters of OS X, even when there wasn't necessary software out there that you could point to and say, "This is why we believe."... We made a bet on OS X. It isn't necessarily the best business bet at this point. But we made it, and we thought it was the right thing to do for customers. We're betting the whole business on OS X. 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. So 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.

Q: What kind of feedback have you gotten about Office v.X?

A: Initial feedback has been amazingly positive. People love the way we "Aqua-fied" the interface to really complement Mac OS X.

Q: What's your favorite addition to the program?

A: I pushed hard for our team to integrate Quartz into our Office drawing tools and charting, so I absolutely love to create great-looking charts in Office X.

Q: What part of Office v.X took the most work?

A: Being on the leading edge is difficult. Basic carbonization -- just getting the apps booting and running enough to work with -- was a grind. We did all of that before Mac OS X 10.0 went final, so the OS builds were in flux, a lot of vital documentation wasn't yet published, and CodeWarrior was changing and not yet stable. Our developers had to debug using the crudest means. We made much slower progress than usual, but by April 2001, we got back to fairly efficient progress. I can't say enough good things about some of the individual engineers and technology managers at Apple who invested huge amounts of their time and energy to help us be successful.

Q: Is there any feature you wanted to include but couldn't?

A: Only about 300!

Q: Now that Office v.X is out the door, what are you focusing on?

A: Office v.X is a great product, but there are certainly places we've become aware of since shipping that don't measure up to past efforts by Microsoft. We're taking steps to address those. There will be a service release that will ship in very late May or early June that includes over 1,000 behavior tweaks, bug fixes, and performance improvements. In some cases, the performance improvements are dramatic. Graphics-heavy PowerPoint presentations are much faster. We're going to take the opportunity to add some features so that people feel like Office v.X stays at the pinnacle of what it means to be Mac-like. Anti-aliased text will be used throughout the suite. The difference in being able to use Entourage with anti-aliased text is absolutely striking. We're ODBC support. We're adding the ability for Word and Excel not just to talk to local FileMaker databases, but also to FileMaker servers, so when you've got one of these gigantic shared FileMaker databases, you'll be able to bring the information into Excel to analyze it. We're working on Palm Sync. That's currently slated to go out with this service release. If it doesn't make it into that, it will be shortly afterwards. We're working on a major improvement on how Palm Sync works there.

Q: What else?

A: We're working hard on a new version of MSN Messenger that will be coming late this spring, early summer. And we're planning on the next major releases of Office and IE. In terms of Office, for the past three years, we have tried to sell the fundamental value proposition that our products are more Mac-like than ever. For the last three versions, that's worked pretty well. We've done as much work as we can do there, so we're looking at a new value proposition, something to focus our internal efforts on and something to be the rallying cry for us internally. Right now, we're using a term, "Empower the Mac."

Q: What do you mean by 'Empower the Mac?'

A: We're looking at that in several aspects. There's the whole integration aspect I talked about with .Net. We can do that both within .Net and outside of .Net to help people work more easily in a personal network that includes home use of a Mac and a work use of a PC and a Palm or cellphone. We can definitely make it a lot easier to maintain that personal network, to make it easier for Macs to work in teams, to make easier for Macs to have access to this broader set of data and resources that large organizations make available to Windows users. That's the high-level future direction of where we're trying to head with Office. It's going to be a Mac OS X-only product. We typically try to space our releases 18 to 24 months apart, so that gives you the approximate time frame to think about the next major release.

Q: What about the next major Internet Explorer update?

A: Although Internet Explorer is the best of the current Mac OS X browsers, it's not where we want it to be. So we're working hard on making it more OS X-like, improving performance, improving security and privacy for customers for the long-term, and improving HTML and XML rendering. Although they're very good in terms of standard compliance, we could help out our Web developer customers 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. Again, that one's to going to be Mac OS X-only.

Q: You mentioned anti-aliasing in Office. What about anti-aliasing in IE?

A: That's something we're looking at as well. Later this year, we'll be able to lay out more specifically what our release strategy is and when you're going to see some of these things.

Q: Two products we're asked about a lot are Microsoft Outlook and Outlook Express. Are there any plans to update those programs to run natively in OS X?

A: We're investigating the future of both products, but don't have any announcements to make at this time.

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