Microsoft announced it will release a version of Office for Mac OS X in the fall, marking the first truly significant software developer to back Apple's next-generation operating system.
Analysts had warned that without a version of Office, or a similar productivity suite, running natively under Mac OS X, Apple would face problems getting businesses to switch to the new operating system.
"This is a very significant announcement for Apple," Gartner analyst Chris LeTocq said. "Frankly, this is the endorsement they needed."
Until Wednesday's announcement at Macworld Expo in San Francisco, Microsoft refused to reveal a timetable for a Mac OS X version of Office, with some analysts speculating the company would not deliver the product until early 2002.
Mary Becker, group product manager of Microsoft's Macintosh business unit, explained the change in the company's position with regard to Office for Mac OS X.
Becker said that when Microsoft unveiled Mac Office 2001 in July, "a lot of people in the industry were saying, 'What does OS X really look like? What does it really mean to the industry?' There was a lot of uncertainty."
But much has changed since the summer. "The difference between then and now is that Apple is further along" with OS X, Becker said. "If you take a train analoge, we didn't know where we were headed. We do now, and Microsoft's on the train."
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But Microsoft did back Mac OS X in other ways, such as shipping a version of Internet Explorer with the operating system's public beta, or test version, in September.
Still, Microsoft's commitment to delivering Office for OS X is a huge win for Apple, particularly because software developers have not flocked to the new operating system as aggressively as the company had hoped, Technology Business Research analyst Tim Deal said.
"This is a good development for Apple," Deal said. "It certainly helps promote Mac OS X. I believe Apple still needs to get additional developers onboard for Mac OS X to reach the potential they are shooting for."
Becker concurred that Microsoft's full backing for Mac OS X sends an important message.
"We've worked hard to partner with Apple, but the industry looks and asks, 'How does Microsoft view things? If they're on board with OS X, then things must be going well,'" she said. "They look to us as an overall temperature check and gauge."
Regardless, Apple may have delivered a tacit ding Tuesday to Microsoft, its largest software development partner. During his keynote speech at Macworld, Apple chief executive Steve Jobs on several occasions referred to applications appearing in the autumn as "laggards."
Becker defended Microsoft's decision not to release Office for Mac OS X until later in the year.
"Office is a very large set of applications," she said. "There are 25 million lines of code. It's not as easy as saying, 'Hey, we're going to port it over to OS X.' It takes time."
She also emphasized the importance of the project for Microsoft.
"We're moving on to Mac OS X. It's our No. 1 priority for 2001," Becker said.
Jobs also announced that Mac OS X will go on sale March 24 for $129 and appear on new computers starting in July. The much anticipated, but long-delayed, operating system overhaul is the most significant change to Mac OS since 1984 when Apple released the Macintosh.
In the meantime, Apple on Tuesday released Mac OS 9.1, which added new features designed to ease the transition to the new version.
With the Mac OS X release date firm and no longer "a moving target," other major developers may finally give the operating system the support it needs, said LeTocq, who praised Microsoft's responsiveness.
"For Microsoft to produce a major application like Office six months after code freeze is pretty good timing on their part," he said.
For a limited time, Microsoft plans to offer a 50 percent discount on the upcoming Mac OS X Office to anyone who buys the current release, Mac Office 2001.
Microsoft has set the price for the upgrade to Office for Mac OS X at $299 and the full version at $499.
The Redmond, Wash.-based software maker also is working on the first update to Mac Office 2001. The update is essential for ensuring that the software suite runs smoothly under Mac OS 9.1 and Mac OS X's "Classic" mode.
Besides revealing its future Mac OS X Office plans Wednesday, Microsoft also released the beta version of Outlook 2001 for the Mac.
Becker said Microsoft plans to release Outlook 2001 in the summer. Outlook differs dramatically from Entourage, the email client and contact manager included with Office 2001. Whereas Entourage is a stand-alone product, Outlook requires Exchange Server and offers a variety of collaborative features.