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A stock market slide and a generally downbeat technology market may have meant a sour end to 2000 for Apple. But for business software connoisseurs, the past 12 months could have hardly been brighter.

The latest release of Microsoft Office sported a bevy of Mac-only features, lapping the Windows' version of the productivity suite. Mac users still nursing a grudge against Redmond could take heart in Sun Microsystems' announcement that it would release a Mac version of its free productivity suite, StarOffice. IBM's ViaVoice and MacSpeech's iListen marked opening forays into the voice-recognition field for the Mac. With the business management product AccountEdge, MYOB sought to fill a hole left in the platform's software lineup when Intuit stopped updating the Mac version of QuickBooks. And that just scratches the surface -- longtime Mac programs such as Quicken and FastTrack Scheduler saw upgrades while companies that had abandoned the Mac years ago, such as SPSS, returned with new releases.

Clent Richardson, Apple's vice president of worldwide developer relations, can barely contain his glee when he talks about the strides made by the platform in the small-office/home-office market during the past year. The only thing that produces a more enthusiastic response is when Richardson is asked about business software prospects for 2001.

"I'm more excited about the future than the incredible year we just completed," Richardson says.

Developers are keeping their lips sealed on upcoming product news, choosing not to steal any thunder from announcements they might be making as soon as next week's Macworld Expo in San Francisco. But make no mistake -- business software should be a big story in 2001, as developers prepare upgrades that take full advantage of the soon-to-be-released Mac OS X.

"All our developers understand we have a single OS strategy," Richardson says. "And they've all gotten aboard."

Take MYOB, which designed AccountEdge specifically to take advantage of the new operating system's Aqua interface. Or FileMaker, which has been developing a Carbonized version of FileMaker Pro that it plans to demo at Macworld Expo. Palm has already announced its plans to have an OS X-ready version of its software in 2001, and Microsoft is said to be working on Carbonizing Office now that the latest version shipped in the fall.

"What you'll end up seeing is not only technical demos, but software that takes advantage of Aqua, thread management, task management, and a powerful graphics engine," Richardson says.

OS X may also end up attracting business software developers who previously ignored the Mac market. The new operating system is built around a Unix kernel -- the nerve center of the OS -- and supports Java 2. That makes it easier for developers to build applications that work across different platforms.

Whether it's from old Mac developers or new, business software figures to play a key role in Apple's 2001 fortunes. While strong in the creative professional and education arenas, the Mac has traditionally lagged behind other platforms in offering software that can run your business. A beefed-up lineup could go a long way toward shoring up Apple's market share, particularly at a time when PC makers are faltering.

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