Microsoft Gets Assimilated

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It didn't look like it at the time, but the best move Microsoft ever made on the Mac platform was to develop and release Word 6.

It wasn't that the word processing application was a well-received product. It wasn't. With its memory-gobbling size and Windows-like interface, many Mac users treated Word 6 like a box full of eels. The only thing louder than complaints about the software was the sound of people clicking on "Uninstall."

"When we shipped Word 6, we heard about it," says Irving Kwong, product manager for Microsoft's Mac business unit.

Did they ever. Microsoft set up a page on its Web site to gauge user feedback on Word 6. The flood of comments -- most of them far from complimentary -- forced the company to close down the forum after a week. That was the moment Microsoft realized that if it was to make a splash on the Mac platform, it would have to do more than jury-rig its Windows products to run on Mac OS.

Flash ahead six years to this week's release of Office 2001 for the Mac. Microsoft says it set out to make the applications suite easier to use and more Mac-like. That's not just a bunch of hot wind; from the bevy of Mac-only features to the software's streamlined, more elegant look, Office couldn't be more Mac-like if it had been designed in Cupertino. Even the new rounded plastic case Office ships in looks like it sprang from the outer reaches of Steve Jobs's brain.

"We worked very closely with Apple to make sure we understood what the Mac is about," Kevin Browne, general manager of Mircosoft's Mac business unit, told the assembled masses at Wednesday's Office 2001 for the Mac rollout in San Francisco.

That's clear as soon as you look at the finished product. The interface is cleaner. The Office applications work together better than before. And even the most fervid sworn enemies of Redmond will have to come to terms with an increasingly apparent situation: Microsoft may well be the leading Mac developer when it comes to understanding and embracing the platform.

We will now pause as our server crashes under the weight of all the hate mail you're busy sending my way. While we wait, let me just offer a rebuttal or two to the well-thought-out and carefully constructed arguments that are no doubt appearing in the reader forum below.

  • You're entitled to your opinion just like I'm entitled to mine.
  • Even if what you're proposing was anatomically possible, I'm not flexible enough to do that.
  • I fail to see what my mother has to do with any of this.
  • Same to you, buddy.
  • There. Got it out of your system? Good. Let's continue.

    This is not to say that Microsoft is the best developer or has the best products. What I am saying is that the company seems to understand and emulate what drives people to buy a Mac in the first place -- it makes complex tasks simple and simple ones effortless. And I'm saying that the people who automatically denounce Microsoft for age-old wounds increasingly come off like cranks who won't eat at Benihana because of that spot of unpleasantness with Japan back in the 1940s.

    After Word 6, Kwong says, "we took a look at the (software's) fundamental architecture and ripped out a lot of the code assumptions we were making about the Mac OS." The Office programmers rewrote the code to Apple's specs. The result, Kwong says, is a program that won't break.

    "There's a legion of people who are into Word 5.1 because it's very, very native," Kwong says. "Office 2001 is even more native now than Word 5.1 was then."

    And consider Mac-like attributes such as:

    The bulky, multiple tool bars at the top of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint are gone; now, there's just a single tool bar at the top of each application and a context-sensitive formatting palette to handle things like font size, type style, and alignment.

    "With Mac users, there are certain expectations of having products that are very refined," Kwong says. "We took that to heart."

    If you wanted to use a template in previous versions of Office, you had to launch the right application; Word, Excel, and PowerPoint didn't share templates. "We used to make assumptions that people knew which applications to use," Kwong says.

    That's where Project Gallery comes in. Anytime you launch Office, this beefed-up dialog box appears, letting you choose from templates to create documents in any application. The result? More seamless interaction between the Office programs.

    Office now features a FileMaker Pro Import Wizard that simplifies the task of importing a FileMaker Pro database onto your Excel spreadsheet. After the List Wizard helps you create a spreadsheet-based list, the new List Manager tool lets you sort data to show information however you want. PowerPoint presentations can be livened up by saving the file as a QuickTime movie. Kwong recalls one beta tester who took photos from a family reunion, put them in a PowerPoint file, and used the QuickTime feature to add transitions and create a slide show that anyone could watch on a QT Player.

    "You make it what you want it to be because the feature is open-ended," Kwong says.

    That may sound familiar, says Apple vice president of worldwide developer relations Clent Richardson, because that's how Apple made its bones with the Mac.

    "This is a celebration of incredible craftsmanship in software design," Richardson says. And other Mac developers would do well to follow Microsoft's lead.

    That's not to say Microsoft can do no wrong. Flaws will inevitably crop up in Office 2001. Users will justifiably balk at the $499 ($299 upgrade) price tag. And if you want a Carbonized version of Office for OS X, you'll have to wait.

    Microsoft wanted to finish work on this version before putting together a Carbon-ready one. All Browne could say Wednesday was that Microsoft was committed to OS X and a Carbonized Office probably wouldn't be ready immediately after a final version of the operating system ships. That's not ideal, but it's not any reason to burn Bill Gates in effigy, either.

    A month ago, Microsoft was the only developer to share the stage with Steve Jobs during the Apple CEO's keynote speech in Paris. Parisians, apparently sharing America's charming disdain for all things emanating from Redmond, booed lustily.

    That brought a reprimand from Jobs. "We've got to help these guys," Jobs said of Microsoft's Mac business unit, which probably doesn't get a lot of congratulatory handshakes from its Windows-crazed colleagues. "Isn't it great that the Mac is going to have the best version of Office?"

    Well, yeah.

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