Microsoft Office 10’s Carrot and Stick
With Mac OS X 10.1 – as demoed at this year’s Macworld Expo in New York – Apple looks to be making necessary changes that will bring its next generation operating system to a point where it will appeal to an audience beyond bleeding edge early adopters and Macintosh/Unix geeks. For mainstream adoption, Apple must overcome deeply held opinions strengthened by years of inertia. Some of those opinions may be valid, others may be pure pigheadedness on the part of users tired of learning new interfaces. Either way, the Mac OS X effort will succeed only if it receives carrot-and-stick attention both from Apple and Macintosh developers.
Apple’s carrot is Mac OS X’s powerful Unix core and "lickable" Aqua interface, but Mac OS X simply isn’t ready for Apple to start brandishing the stick of restricting new hardware to Mac OS X, as the company has gradually done with older Macs all along. But it’s a different situation for Macintosh developers, who have been caught in the headlights of the oncoming Mac OS X train that Steve Jobs said was leaving the station as far back as May of 2000. They’ve been scrambling just to carbonize existing applications to take advantage of Mac OS X’s major features like protected memory and preemptive multitasking. Despite Apple’s claims of how easy it was to carbonize a relatively recent application, many developers have found it a time-intensive task, particularly if they want to do it right, and even more so if the technologies they need aren’t fully functional in Mac OS X. A number of the programmers I spoke with at Macworld said their Mac OS X versions were in progress, but almost all muttered about they were having trouble getting the necessary information or help from Apple.
As you’ve no doubt noticed, many of the Mac OS X versions of existing applications we’ve seen so far have notable restrictions as the developers struggle to work with limited information from Apple to match the feature set they delivered under Mac OS 9. That’s a lousy carrot: "Here’s our great new Mac OS X version, which can do a lot of what the Mac OS 9 version does, and runs under Mac OS X too!" And for the most part, I haven’t seen much stick waving going on, much as that will be necessary for Mac OS X’s eventual success.
Microsoft Steps Forward — The essential Macintosh developer in this situation is Microsoft. Adobe, Macromedia, Symantec, Intuit, and others are also important, but the must-have software that can make or break Mac OS X is Microsoft Office. Without Microsoft Office, Mac OS X would face such an uphill battle for acceptance in the business world that it might as well take its Mach microkernel and go back to Carnegie Mellon University. Or, if we still had the Microsoft attitudes that were responsible for the Word 6 debacle, we’d end up with a lame, half-hearted carbonization that would serve merely to give Windows users another reason denigrate the Mac. But the Macintosh Business Unit (MacBU in Microsoft lingo) that’s currently in place at Microsoft gets it, and although they must deal with kind of political battles from the Windows side of the company that crop up only in the nightmares of other companies, they’re doing the right thing as much as is possible.
One great example of the difference between the MacBU and other groups is the just-released Microsoft Outlook for the Mac, which was written by the Windows Outlook team (and is not to be confused with Outlook Express). It looks like a Mac application, and it has some "Mac-first" features like drag install and being able to change the color of the interface, but it’s clearly a Windows port, so much so that to get details on a message or folder, you choose the "Properties" menu item. Worse, it converts HTML messages to RTF (losing links in the process), has no Palm device support, lacks a Redirect command, can’t connect to POP/IMAP servers, can’t do Internet-style quoting like Entourage and Outlook Express, and lacks an inline spelling checker like the other Office applications. It’s good to see a version of Outlook for the Mac, since it’s often a requirement for Macs to survive in a Windows-based company, but couldn’t the MacBU have done the work?
Office 10 on Mac OS X — Before Macworld Expo, Kevin Browne of Microsoft showed me Microsoft Office 10, and by the end of the discussion, it was clear that Microsoft is completely backing Mac OS X. The most important decision Microsoft made with Office 10 is that it will work only on Mac OS X, and all future feature work will be done on Office 10. There’s the promised stick – if you want to continue to move forward and stay compatible with the Windows side of things, Office 10 and its successors are your only chance. But at the same time, those who don’t wish to or can’t upgrade to Mac OS X can continue to use Office 2001, and Kevin said Microsoft would release maintenance updates as necessary to make sure the software remained functional on future versions of Mac OS 9.
In making this decision, Microsoft is betting on Mac OS X, and they’ve put their money where their mouth is by doing a ton of low-level architectural work on Office (to the tune of 25 million lines of code). Some of the code in Office is more than ten years old, so a simple carbonization wasn’t going to work. While they were re-architecting portions of the low-level code, Microsoft decided to rely on Carbon Events, a Mac OS X technology that changes the way applications interact with the operating system. In the current Mac OS, applications spend a lot of time asking the operating system for the next event that might concern them – a mouse click, keystroke, a window action, or so on – and then reacting appropriately. That still works in Mac OS X, but it’s inefficient, and contributes in part to Mac OS X’s performance problems. With Carbon Events, applications register the events they’re interested in with the operating system, and then they sit quietly and wait until the operating system sees those events and sends them along to be acted on. When a Carbon Event-supporting application is in the background, it can be totally quiet, and not take up any CPU time at all. Obviously, it’s difficult to show how much supporting Carbon Events can speed up an application, but the performance of Office 10 on a PowerBook G4 Titanium was pretty good, especially considering that it’s still pre-release code.
New Office Features — Decent performance isn’t a carrot though, it should be a given. On the carrot side of things, Microsoft added a few features – nothing truly earth-shattering, but distinct niceties that many users will notice and which address shortcomings Contributing Editor Matt Neuburg has described in his extensive TidBITS reviews of the Office 98 and Office 2001 applications. They include:
Multiple discontiguous selection in Word. Finally you can select words or phrases that aren’t next to each other, just like in Nisus Writer. You won’t use this feature every day, but when you’re faced with making a change to a number of words or phrases that you can’t change via styles or find and replace, multiple discontiguous select is a boon.
Clear Formatting in Word. If some text has multiple styles (both manual formatting and user-defined character and paragraph styles) attached to it, a single command will remove all of them so you don’t have to toggle each one off in turn. With a complex formatting morass, it’s often simpler just to turn off all the formatting and start from a clean slate.
AutoRecover in Excel. Now, if you crash while working on an Excel spreadsheet, you may be able to recover changes that happened since your last manual save, just like in Word. The process of recovering your data and merging the changes into your document is clumsy at best in Word, and I suspect that it will be easiest to use the recovered document because of the difficulty of merging changes in a spreadsheet, but it’s still a welcome feature.
Customized keyboard shortcuts in Excel. Matt Neuburg noted this notable inconsistency between Excel and Word in both Office 98 and Office 2001, but it finally goes away in Office 10.
PowerPoint packages. If a PowerPoint presentation relies on external files, there’s now a way you can bundle them all together so links between the presentation and the external files don’t break.
Support for the Aqua interface design. With Office 2001, Microsoft aimed for a Platinum look to fit in with Mac OS 9 as well as possible. Platinum looks wrong in Mac OS X, so Microsoft modified hundreds of dialog boxes and icons to make them fit in with the rest of the Aqua interface. In some cases, using Aqua actually improves usability. Notable instances of this include shadowing behind the active cell in Excel, and more obvious indication that the controls around the edge of Word windows can be clicked.
Support for Mac OS X’s Quartz imaging model. Although Word and Excel retain the same typographic engine as the Mac OS 9 versions (so documents format identically), PowerPoint uses Quartz entirely to eliminate jagged edges in the large font sizes used in presentations. The graphics tools in all three applications benefit from Quartz as well, so angled lines don’t have jagged edges, and you can apply transparency levels to graphics. That’s especially useful in 3-D charts in Excel, where you can now see through some of the charted data ranges. Those relying on cross platform compatibility will need to be careful with these changes, since the transparency won’t translate, and font spacing may change in PowerPoint presentations. But for those that work solely on the Mac, the new capabilities are welcome.
Entourage wasn’t part of the demo, so I can’t say if there will be anything new there, though it should be the easiest application to carbonize and has the most room for new features.
Missing in Action — Even Microsoft couldn’t make the full functionality of Office 2001 available in Office 10, but the two omissions are relatively minor. First, without additional help from Apple and Palm, Microsoft wasn’t able to get Palm device synchronization working in the Office 10 version of Entourage. I certainly hope that functionality will arrive as soon as possible as part of a free upgrade.
Second, Microsoft chose not to implement the ODBC (Open Database Connectivity) features in Excel 2001 because of the amount of work it entailed for the very few customers who relied on it. As much as we hate to see the Mac version of Office lacking a feature on the Windows side, it seems that almost all the people who really need ODBC use Windows already. In the trade-off, I’d rather have Microsoft expending effort on performance or features that most Mac users will appreciate than on database connectivity few people will ever use. And if more people are using ODBC in Excel than Microsoft realizes, let them know and perhaps the feature will return.
Other Programs — Although Office is Microsoft’s flagship Macintosh product, they have a few more in active development. The free MSN Messenger for Macintosh 2.0, which is available now, is a Carbon application that works on Mac OS 8.6, Mac OS 9.x, or Mac OS X. I never used MSN Messenger for Macintosh 1.0, so I can’t attest to its quality. It would appear to be a decent instant messaging client with most of the features of the Windows version, short of file transfer, voice, and video chat. Despite the claims in Microsoft’s keynote at Macworld Expo, MSN Messenger’s capabilities to invite people to chat or provide status on their typing activity aren’t unique – for instance, they exist in the instant messaging features in Netopia’s Timbuktu Pro. One potential negative to MSN Messenger is that it requires use of Microsoft Passport, and although Passport no longer forces you to have a HotMail account that you may not want, many people are incredibly uncomfortable with Microsoft storing their personal information, both because of reliability (such as a recent week-long outage for many Messenger users) and privacy (no single company should occupy that position of power, with all the possibilities for future abuse).
Even less interesting is Windows Media Player for Mac. Version 7, which is out now, lets Mac users play Windows Media files (they’re roughly akin to QuickTime movies, and use the .wma filename extension). The next version of Windows Media Player for Mac will run only on Mac OS X when it ships in a few months. Why would you give a hoot? Purely because some content is available only in Windows Media format, though Microsoft also claims that songs in Windows Media format can be half the size of MP3 files. I doubt this program will go anywhere – not only will Mac users who care stick with Apple’s QuickTime format whenever possible, but the name "Windows Media Player for Mac" ensures that almost no Mac users will even notice its existence. I assume it was politically necessary for the MacBU to create this program, but even those who aren’t rabid Apple mouse-thumpers will have trouble supporting Windows Media format over QuickTime. Personally, I’ll give it a pass and ask sites restricting content to Windows Media format to support QuickTime as well.
Summing Up — Office stalwarts Word, Excel, and PowerPoint are mature applications with relatively little room for significant new functionality. Nonetheless, with Office 10, Microsoft appears to be on target with a release that will give users a real reason to upgrade to Mac OS X when Office 10 debuts in a few months.
Pricing details on Office 10 aren’t yet available, but if you don’t already own Office 2001 and don’t need Excel or PowerPoint, Microsoft is saying that the cheapest way to get Office 10 will be to who buy the limited-time Word + Entourage Special Edition for $150 and then upgrade to Office 10 when it ships for another $150.
Oh, and one more thing. "Office 10" is actually a codename; Microsoft hasn’t decided on the official name or spelling yet, but I wouldn’t expect them to fall in behind Apple with use of the Roman numeral X. When we polled TidBITS readers about how they said Mac OS X, more than half voted for "Mac OS Ex." Apply the same pronunciation, said fast, to "Office X," and the human resources people might be calling you in for a chat about appropriate language in the workplace.