Basic lesson: Microsoft listens to its users

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Nearly two years ago, Microsoft announced that it was removing Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) from Office 2008 for Mac. A lot of people who rely on VBA, including myself, were pretty disappointed in Microsoft's short-sighted decision, despite the company's extensive technical explanations for why it had to be done.

But Microsoft has reversed course, announcing Tuesday that Visual Basic will return to Office for Mac with the next full release of the software. It's a great move, but it's unfortunate that users will need to wait for years before they can see the fruits of this decision.

In a conversation I had last week with officials from Microsoft's Mac Business Unit, they told me that when the company made the original decision in 2006, Office for Mac's developers truly believed that the era of VBA on the Mac was over.

But Microsoft officials began to hear the complaints, the loudest of which came from businesses that rely on the cross-platform interoperability of Office macros. (Even though the languages differ between OS X and Windows, much of the basic functionality works just fine on both platforms.)

Of course they heard complaints. In my original story on the subject, I wrote: “In any sort of mixed-platform environment, this is a very important capability—calling it mission critical for many wouldn’t be an understatement.”

What does surprise me—in a good way—is that Microsoft listened to the complaints and reacted. I truly thought that VBA on the Mac was dead and buried, so I’m thrilled that Microsoft has listened to the complaints, even in the face of strong sales of Office 2008.

I find myself suddenly optimistic. Maybe this new VBA implementation will allow Mac users to gain some of the Windows-only features that we’ve been missing, which would do even more to ease cross-platform compatibility.

And now... we wait

All of this good news, however, does come with a big downer: the calendar. Office 2008 only arrived in January, and Microsoft likes to revise Office on a two-to-three year cycle. (The complicated migration from PowerPC to Intel code meant that we waited nearly four years between the release of Office 2004 and Office 2008; Microsoft spokespeople told us that the company is very interested in getting back on the two-to-three year cycle with the next release of Office.) So at best, we’ll get VBA support back in January of 2010; more realistically, it will happen sometime between then and January of 2011. That’s a long time to wait, especially if you’ve got a need for macro support today.

We inquired about the possibility of a patch for Office 2008, but Microsoft’s representatives told us it just wasn’t possible. The work to migrate the VBA engine to Intel-compatible code isn’t yet done, for one thing. Even when that step is done, however, the VBA engine must then be integrated into each of the Office applications. So that means no patch for Office 2008 to add VBA support.

Given at least an 18-month wait for VBA support on the Mac, what do you do in the interim if you require VBA support? The simplest thing to do is just wait—keep using Office 2004, which runs more than acceptably in Rosetta mode on Intel Macs, until the next version of Office is released. But what if you’re receiving files in the newer “docx” or “pptx” file format? You can ask those creating such files to save them in older formats, or use Microsoft’s file format converter to convert them to an older format—but unfortunately, you can’t use the converter on Excel (xlsx) files.

Apple’s Numbers, part of iWork, can open (but not save) the newer file formats, and at $79, is an amazing bargain. If you don’t yet own it, iWork may meet your file compatibility needs (as long as those you interact with don’t mind receiving files back that are saved in the older format). Alternatively, you could choose to purchase Office 2008 for the Mac to handle the newer file formats, and any new files that don’t require VBA. You’d then just rely on Office 2004 for those files that require VBA support.

There are some less expensive alternatives as well—NeoOffice, which is free but suggests a donation before downloading, is a port of the office suite, and it can both open and save files in the new Word, Excel, and PowerPoint file formats. The recently-released and free 3.0 beta can open, but not save to, the new file formats, though it will save to older Office formats.

Finally, if you’re using an Intel Mac, and you simply must have VBA support now and need 100-percent file format compatibility, you could invest in Parallels Desktop or VMware Fusion, Windows XP or Vista, and Office 2007 for Windows. Of course, this would be a costly solution, but it would give you full VBA support and file format compatibility.

Personally, I’m using a mix of Office 2008 (for VBA-free new files and those files that arrive in my inbox in the new format) and Office 2004 (for the handful of documents and spreadsheets that I have that absolutely rely on VBA to work). I am, however, counting the days until I can once again run just one version of Office on the Mac.

So thanks, Microsoft, for listening to your customers. It’s always pleasing to know that the voice of the user does matter in determining the future direction of a product.

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