Microsoft's Mac Outlook

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A keynote from Microsoft may not be the thrill-a-minute ride you get with a Steve Jobs speech -- no shiny metal laptops to be had here, folks -- but that doesn't mean the software giant sent the crowd home disappointed from its Wednesday presentation. In fact, Microsoft Mac Business Unit General Manager Kevin Browne had two pieces of news that should encourage Mac users: a free beta for a Mac version of Microsoft Outlook and a fall 2001 shipping date for an OS X-ready Microsoft Office.

Microsoft's message Wednesday was the same one it's been sounding since remaking the look of its Mac arm last summer -- Apple's ages-old rival is dedicated to developing for the Mac platform. Browne built on that theme Wednesday by describing Microsoft's Mac software as full-featured products that give their Windows counterparts a run for their money.

"People keep asking about our commitment (to the Mac)," Browne said. "We are tremendously invested in this platform."

Take Outlook, Microsoft's e-mail, calendaring, and collaboration program for Exchange Server (and not to be confused with the free Outlook Express e-mail client that Microsoft makes). Even the most fervent Microsoft defender would concede past Mac versions of Outlook are little more than a port of the Windows offering.

That's changing with Outlook 2001 for the Mac, the latest edition of the software due out later this year. David Siroky, product manager for Microsoft Exchange Server, told Macworld that customers wanted two things in the Mac software: "seamless interoperability with the Windows version and a world-class Mac application similar to the Macintosh work we did on Office."

To that end, the new interface on Outlook bears a striking resemblance to the look and feel of the Mac versions of Office and Internet Explorer, right down to a customization tool that lets you pick iMac-like colors for the software's background. While the Mac and Windows versions of Outlook may look different, they're completely compatible. A Mac user accessing Outlook's group calendar or contact management features will see the same data formats that a Windows user sees.

"This makes it possible to easily share information," said Jensen Harris, product manager for Outlook for the Mac. "Whether you're on a Mac machine, whether you're on a Windows machine, it just shouldn't matter."

A finished version of Outlook for the Mac will be ready in the summer. But a free beta can be downloaded at Microsoft's Web site -- the software giant apparently not reading the chapter from the Steve Jobs playbook titled "How to Get People to Pay for Unfinished Products."

Mac users will have to wait slightly longer than summer for an OS X-ready version of Office. Browne said the product will ship sometime during the fall. To placate Office 2001 customers--and to get other Mac users to upgrade to the latest version of the productivity suite--Microsoft has set a $149 upgrade price for the OS X version if you buy Office before a certain, yet-to-be-determined date.

Browne stressed that Office for Mac OS X--apparently the next version's name--"will be a major release. It's not an update, it's not a patch." Instead, Microsoft is rebuilding Office from the ground up to work seamlessly with the new operating system.

"This is going to give us both the requirement and the opportunity to go back and redesign the application to work much better on Mac OS," Browne said.

Expect some new features for Entourage, the personal information manager introduced in Office 2001, to appear in the Carbonized version. More mature programs like Word and Excel will see few new features, however, as Microsoft rushes to Carbonize those applications by its fall target date.

Microsoft's development team began rewriting the more than 200 Office components to run in OS X shortly after Office 2001 shipped last fall. Browne showed primitive versions of Word and Entourage running in OS X. Entourage sported a colorful Aqua-like interface, while Word featured a document with an embedded QuickTime movie that ran uninterrupted as Browne moved it back and forth between the operating system's Dock.

"Microsoft loves OS X," Browne said. "At least, our division does. A couple of other people (at Microsoft) may be sweating a bit."

As for Office 2001, Microsoft's plans to issue a service release to fix a few problems found with existing files in the application Service Release 1 should also ensure that Office runs flawlessly in Mac OS X's Classic environment, as well as in the just-released Mac OS 9.1. Browne says Microsoft will post the Office 2001 update before OS X's March 24 shipping date "so there will be no disruption."

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