Tech Industry

Microsoft gives sneak peek at next Mac Office

The software giant discloses more details about the next major release of its Office software for the Macintosh, the first new version of the productivity suite in nearly three years.

Microsoft has disclosed more details about the next major release of its Office software for the Macintosh, the first new version of the productivity suite in nearly three years.

Word of the new version leaked out last month, when Microsoft inadvertently posted information on its Mactopia Web site.

In this edition, as in Mac Office 98, Microsoft is introducing Macintosh-only features not available in Office 2000, which is the Windows version.

Many of the other new features could have broad appeal to Macintosh users, said Office 2001 lead project manager Glenn Meyers.

Slated for second-half release, Mac Office 2001 is the first upgrade to the Macintosh productivity suite in about three years.

Microsoft is expected to release a second Mac Office 2001 beta sometime in the next few weeks. Unlike their Windows counterparts, Mac Office betas are not released publicly but are sent to select customers. The timing of Beta 2 would indicate the software maker is on target for releasing the new version, with final code likely to be ready late in the third quarter.

"What we're trying to do here is simplify tasks, starting by completing projects more easily and quickly, starting with the right tools for the job, helping people get more out of their information, and creating presentations and rich media more easily," Meyers said.

While RealNetworks and Microsoft are waging a war for media and streaming players on Windows, on the Macintosh, Apple's QuickTime is king. In light of QuickTime's dominance, one new feature of Mac Office 2001 will let people convert PowerPoint slide presentations into QuickTime format, making them sharable across Macintosh and Windows versions.

Mac Office 2001 also features floating formatting palettes aimed at the Macintosh's large base of graphic design and prepress users, Meyers said. Another Mac-only feature, Mail Merge Manager, is designed to simplify bringing together disparate bits of data. Mail Merge Manager is also tightly integrated with Office 2001's new personal information manager and email client, code-named Alpaca.

Alpaca is Microsoft's answer to Macintosh users looking for features found in Outlook 2000 for Windows, such as working with contacts, tasks and email in one program.

Microsoft claims that about 56 percent of Macintosh users also depend on a PC and more than 80 percent work in offices where Macs and PCs are networked together. About 50 percent of Mac Office 98 users share files with Windows users daily and about two-thirds do so once a week.

As such, Microsoft Windows 2000: The next generationintroduced true file compatibility with Office for Windows with the release of Mac Office 98, and the company hopes to extend that, capitalizing on a strategic error made by Apple with its newest version of AppleWorks.

Unlike earlier versions of the AppleWorks suite, the latest version, 6.04, offers limited file support--AppleWorks, HTML and RTF--and cannot read Mac Office files without the installation of a third-party product such as DataViz's MacLinkPlus 11.

Microsoft is going after AppleWorks in other ways, introducing Office 2001 Project Gallery, which bears a striking similarity to a feature found in Apple's minisuite and other Works products.

Rather than taking a document-centric approach, Project Gallery lets people write documents based on tasks. While the concept is not new--WordPerfect for Windows has had a similar feature for about five years--it extends the task-centric approach to Office.

Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft has not yet announced a target date for a Mac OS X Office version. Apple last month delayed its next-generation operating system by six months, pushing the release to January 2001. Microsoft plans soon after to release Mac OS X versions of Internet Explorer and Outlook Express but is mute on Mac OS X Office plans.

That could give Macintosh enthusiasts reason to stick with AppleWorks 6.04, which is ready to take advantage of many Mac OS X features for less than a third of Office 2001's projected price.