A Look at Microsoft's Macintosh Business Unit

Microsoft: It's a word that you can say to 20 different Mac users and get as many different responses. Recently I had the opportunity to visit the staff at Microsoft's Mac Business Unit (MacBU) in Redmond, WA. What I found was a group of people dedicated to Apple and to developing the best Mac products in the market.

To give you an idea of the experience level of the people running the MacBU, I have included some personal information about the people I had the opportunity to speak with:

  • Kevin Browne, the general manager and a founding member of the Macintosh Business Unit, has overseen the launch of Office 2001 for Mac, Internet Explorer 5 and Outlook Express 5. Browne was also a systems engineer, product marketer and product planner for Microsoft Excel where he helped ship every version of Excel from 5.0 onward.
  • Kenny Wolf, the Development Manager and founding member of the Macintosh Business Unit, leads the group in developing code for Microsoft's Macintosh applications. Wolf has helped ship Office 98 and Office 2001 for the Mac. Wolf says he's a die-hard Apple fan at heart and has been using Apple computers since 1981 -- from the Apple II through the entire Macintosh line.
  • Michael Connolly, the Group Program Manager and founding member of the Macintosh Business Unit, is heavily involved in the development of Microsoft's Macintosh applications. He has helped ship Excel 5.0, Office 98 for the Macintosh, and Office 2001. Connolly currently heads up the program management team for the Macintosh Business Unit, where the group manages the design usability, the user interface and coordinate projects.
  • Ed Ferris manages the lab for the Macintosh Business Unit -- it's the largest Mac lab outside of Apple. The first thing I saw when I met Ed was his t-shirt (pictured right) -- I couldn't help but laugh while shaking his hand. Ed has more than 18 years of experience on the Macintosh platform. He has been with Microsoft for over 10 years, supporting products such as Word 3.02 - 2001, Microsoft File and Office 3.0 to the current version Office 2001. Prior to joining Microsoft, Ferris worked for Aldus supporting PageMaker and FreeHand and for Apple during the Scully era supporting Mac OS 6.01 - 6.04. Needless to say Ferris has been a long time Mac fan, his first experience started when he purchased the Mac 128k with a 10MB internal Hyper drive.
  • Despite what many people may think, the group at the MacBU are not Windows users forced to grudgingly write code for the Mac. In fact, the programmers at the unit don't write any Windows code at all. Technologies at Microsoft are shared between the Windows and Mac product groups, but that makes sense -- we all benefit from shared technology.

    Until 1997, when the MacBU was formed, approximately 80 percent of all code was shared between the Mac and Windows programming teams. When the teams reached the 80 percent mark, specialized development groups would finish the code for their selected platform.

    This development strategy lead to the release of products like Office 4.x. The people at the MacBU share the feelings of many Mac users who say this was not a good product.

    "Office 4.2 was a bad product for our customers -- it almost killed Microsoft on the Mac," Kevin Browne told MacCentral in an interview on the Microsoft campus. "We're still recovering in many ways; recovering our reputation with customers, recovering the trust level customers have with us."

    But Browne thinks Microsoft has shown its commitment to Apple and Mac users over the years. After reevaluating the failure of Office 4.x, Microsoft decided to spin-off the Mac group into its own business. Since the formation of the MacBU the group has released Office 98, Office 2001, Internet Explorer 5, Outlook Express 5 and Outlook for Mac. The release of Microsoft Office 2001 for Mac brought with it many improvements for Mac users, including many Mac first features and greater compatibility with its Windows counterpart.

    Microsoft was also one of the first companies to pledge support for OS X, telling customers that Office would be coming to the new operating system. But they aren't stopping there -- the MacBU is continually looking at new technologies and features they can offer Mac users.

    "The original mission of the MacBU was to bring a version of Office to the Mac. Then we merged the Internet products market and brought Internet Explorer and Outlook Express to the business unit. There was a time when Microsoft would have a technology that I couldn't even hope to offer my customers on the Mac. Now, I look at the MacBU as having a mission to look at everything that Microsoft is building. We need to make sure we understand what the Mac customer wants, what services they want, and then be able to provide those to them."

    The release of Office v. X will give Mac OS X validation in the business world; there is no doubt about that. If business owners and educational institutions are going to be cross-platform, they need assurances that files can be accessed from both platforms -- Microsoft brings that to the table for Apple, much the same way Adobe Photoshop will bring validation for OS X to the graphics market.

    The MacBU has become more outspoken over the past year, as the group becomes more confident in its products. The message in May of this year to people who think the company is a rival to Apple, was very simple -- get over it. At Macworld New York, during his keynote address, Kevin Browne asked users to try the products the MacBU has developed for Mac users. He also told the crowd to let them know if there are things they didn't like and to tell others if they did like it.

    "With Office 2001, Internet Explorer 5 and Outlook Express 5 my contention is our Mac apps are among the best Mac apps there are," Browne told MacCentral. "If there's something missing in our products, I want to know about it. But what I have a hard time with is when people use opinions that were formed or facts that were in evidence 5 years ago to talk about what we are doing with our products today."

    In fact, two of the full time employees at the MacBU are product planners. Their job is to collect research data on what Mac customers want -- this information is relayed to the rest of the team, who then decide if it can be implemented in a future version.

    The MacBU has experience, commitment and has shown resolve to deliver quality products over the last few years and have done so in the face of criticism from the very users they are trying to support. And remember, programs such as Word were available on the Mac with a Graphical User Interface before becoming available on Windows.

    "What people should know is, I have 160 full time people -- they are Mac fans and they build Mac apps," Browne said.

    This story, "A Look at Microsoft's Macintosh Business Unit" was originally published by PCWorld.

      
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