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In a way, you have to feel a little bit sorry for Microsoft. Delays in getting software out the door are a fact of life in the tech businesses, whether you’re a tiny developer or a Redmond-based software titan overseen by one of the world’s richest men. Yet, when Microsoft’s Mac Business Unit announces that it’s pushing back a planned release—as it did Thursday when it delayed the release of Office 2008 from the second half of this year until January 2008—people try to find the hidden meaning behind the news.

Does this mean Microsoft is getting ready to drop Mac development altogether? (Hardly.) Is it because the Mac Business Unit switched GMs a little less than two months ago? (Not according to the company.) Is it cosmic payback for dropping support for Visual Basic scripting from the new version of Office? (That seems unlikely, and I really wish you’d get back to work, Mr. Griffiths.)

Microsoft characterized the reason to delay Office 2008 as a quality-driven decision brought about by what new GM Craig Eisler called “a perfect storm of events.” In addition to developing for Intel-based Macs, the Mac BU also had to deal with a change in file-formats for Office plus a switch-over from the CodeWarrior environment to Apple’s Xcode. That’s an awful lot to deal with in one update, so it’s understandable that Microsoft might want a little more time to make sure everything’s in order.

And when you think about it, this delay is actually not much of one. Back in January, Microsoft targeted the second-half of 2007 as the release date. I took that to mean fall-ish, which would have netted the company the tail-end of back-to-school sales and made Office 2008 available for the holiday shopping season. (Although I can’t imagine an office-productivity suite of any sort being a terribly popular choice among gift-givers: “Wow—spreadsheets and presentation slides! You shouldn’t have!”) Rolling out Office 2008 at the January 2008 Macworld Conference & Expo means a delay of eight to 12 weeks—a blink of the eye in the greater scheme of things. If it means a stable, polished update instead of reviving Word 6 for a new millennium, I’m happy to wait a little while longer.

Yes, as my colleague Dan Moren points out, Office will be one of the last marquee Mac programs to add native compatibility with Intel-based hardware. But it would still have that distinction even if Microsoft rolled it out on time. If you can’t be early to the party, you might as well be in good shape by the time you get there.

Besides, there’s a little less pressure on Microsoft to do a Universal version of Office than there was on, say, Adobe. High-end professionals were delaying upgrades to new Mac hardware until Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, et al. ran natively on Intel-based machines; I doubt people are holding out for a version of Office to do likewise. In fact, other than for the symbolic purpose of having such a major suite of applications run universally on all Macs, I don’t recall hearing much of a popular demand for an Intel-native Office.

And if I were Microsoft, that would worry me a bit. Sure, it’s never pleasant to get grief from your customers about a product delay. But isn’t that better than a shrug?

For every day that Office 2008 doesn’t come out that’s another day for users to get accustomed to not having it—and to wonder whether they even need Office in the first place. Speaking personally, I’ve been getting a little tired of Entourage’s eccentricities. Originally, I was planning to see if Office 2008 improved matters any; now I’m wondering if it might be better to use the next six months to explore alternatives. I can’t believe I’m the only Mac user mulling over that consideration.

Things are far different than they were 10 years ago, when the disembodied head of Bill Gates appeared at Macworld Expo Boston to announce what was basically a bail-out of Apple. Apple just had its best-ever quarter for Mac sales, something it achieved without much of a boost from a certain office-productivity suite. I’m not saying Microsoft is becoming irrelevant to the Mac platform, but it does seem like the 800-pound gorilla has slimmed down recently.

So is Thursday’s announcement of a delayed Office release bad news? Not for Mac users, that I can tell. Whether it’s bad news for Microsoft is another matter altogether.

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