What Visual Basic’s Office return means for Mac IT

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Microsoft’s Mac Business Unit overshadowed the release of an Office 2008 update by announcing a feature that won’t even be available until the next major overhaul of its productivity suite—the return of VBA functionality. (Note: return. Entourage, never having had VBA functionality is highly unlikely to have that functionality returned.)

Tuesday’s news is a very good thing for business and cross-platform users. The (formerly permanent) loss of support for Visual Basic for Applications has been a serious problem for Office’s Mac users, especially those who rely on the Excel spreadsheet application. Even with the improvements in Office 2008’s AppleScript implementations, VBA could do in Office that AppleScript can’t—recording Macros, cross-platform usage, embedding macros, and customizing the Office UI, to name a few.

So the Mac IT crowd should be rejoicing, right? Sure, except for three items that mar the announcement. First, going by Office release cycles, it’s going to take at least two-and-a-half years for VBA support to return, assuming no delays caused by dependencies on codebase changes with the Windows version of Office. Second, it’s going to cost you another $300 to $400 to get the restored functionality.

The third problem is perhaps the most significant: Many companies are starting to ask “Do we really need to care?” Right now, most companies of 100 employees or more that side-grade to Office 2008 (I can’t really bring myself to consider it an upgrade) still have to run every part of Office 2004 other than Entourage or Messenger. Why? The missing VBA support.

At this point, in the business world, the only compelling reasons for Office 2008 are improvements in Entourage 2008 (particularly in the database code) and support for the XML file formats. Outside of Entourage, I’ve found the performance improvements for Office 2008 to be a wash over Office 2004, even on an Intel-based Mac. I can almost launch Word 2007 inside a VMWare Fusion virtual machine faster than I can launch Word 2008 natively. In either case, if I want to stay with Microsoft Office on a Mac, and use Office 2008 in a business situation, I have to keep two versions of Office on my Mac. I don’t have a choice. That’s not good, because then I start asking “Why do I need Microsoft Office on my Mac?” And even VBA’s return is not going to be the only item that answers that question.

Right now, out of the choices that don’t require a virtual machine or some form of WINE, Office 2008’s only major advantage is handling documents that have embedded objects. The current release versions of OpenOffice and NeoOffice don’t deal with those reliably, and iWork ’08 doesn’t deal with them at all. However, once you get outside of that requirement, the “need” for Office 2008 shrinks rapidly for the home-small business users. I haven’t needed to use Microsoft Office since iWork ’08 came out. I like Entourage, so I use that, but for my needs, iWork ’08 plus Entourage 2008 has been a stellar combination.

When you shift to medium- to large-business users, the case for any version of Microsoft Office on the Mac gets worse, because then you start running into things like SharePoint and IRM, or Information Rights Management.

SharePoint is Microsoft’s document management architecture that ties into Office on Windows. Think of it as CVS or Adobe Version Cue for Microsoft Office. SharePoint includes a lot more, such as Public Folder functionality for Exchange 2007, web portals, collaboration, and so forth, but document management is a major part of it.

In the Windows version of Office, the bundled applications all work with SharePoint. You can check documents out, check documents in, and work with versions, all from within the individual Office application. So Word on Windows just works with SharePoint, as does Excel. You can even mount SharePoint folders via WebDAV. For groups working on the same document(s), SharePoint is a useful tool—at least, for Office on Windows.

On the Mac, Office has as much built-in SharePoint integration as iWork ’08 or TextEdit: None, outside of being able to work with Office files. To do anything with SharePoint on a Mac, you have to use a Web browser, and you lose a lot of functionality. You have to check out a document, download it to your machine, work on it, then upload and check the document back in. At that point, iWork ’08 has equivalent SharePoint integration as any version of Office on the Mac. Due to the way the Mac OS works with WebDAV, you can’t even mount SharePoint folders in the Finder, because dot-files evidently do bad things to SharePoint.

So, if you work for a company that relies on SharePoint—and a lot do—there’s no version of Office for the Mac that’s easy to use for work items. IRM only increases the pain.

While IRM is similar in functionality to digital-rights management, when you’re talking about the business arena, such technology actually makes sense. IRM allows you, outside of file permissions and ACLs, to create access and usage permissions that live in the file itself. So even if someone is able to gain access to a file, you can still restrict what they can do with it. Some items you can limit are:

  • Who can view a document
  • Editing
  • Saving
  • Copy/Paste
  • Exporting as a different file format
  • Printing
  • Macros
  • Forward an e-mail message
  • Reply to an e-mail message
  • Document/e-mail expiration

In a larger company, or one that deals with sensitive information that must have controlled access internally, IRM is a fairly transparent, user-friendly way to manage access to documents. If you use Office on a Mac, you’re pretty much locked out of IRM, which means you either use Office for Windows via some method, or you don’t use a Mac.

It’s not just the lack of VBA that is causing problems for Office users on the Mac, it’s a whole host of things. Even allowing for the return of VBA support, Office on the Mac has some real problems transparently interacting with the rest of the Microsoft Office world. If VBA is the only business-friendly feature that the next version of Office has, then I think Mac version runs a high probability of gradually disappearing from the business world, even as the Mac increases its presence there.

[John C. Welch is a senior systems administrator for The Zimmerman Agency, and a long-time Mac IT pundit.]

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