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Microsoft polishes Office for Apple

The software giant plans to release on Monday the first significant update to the Mac OS X version of Office and will also introduce a version of its IM program for the latest Mac OS.

Microsoft plans to release on Monday the first significant update to the Mac OS X version of Office and will also introduce a version of its instant messaging program designed for the latest Mac operating system.

As previously reported, Service Release 1 for Office v. X is a free download that offers more than 1,000 tweaks, bug fixes and performance enhancements. Among the more noticeable changes are improvements to the way text appears on the screen and tweaks that let Office communicate with the server version of Apple Computer's FileMaker database software.

The software giant is also releasing MSN Messenger 3.0, the first version of Microsoft's instant messaging program to fully take advantage of OS X. In addition to being adjusted for OS X, the new Messenger adds the ability to transfer files.

Software that will allow a Palm handheld to synchronize directly with Office will be made available as a free download July 15.

As Microsoft promised at an April event, the company is focusing its development efforts for the Mac on OS X products. The new version of Messenger, for example, will only run on that operating system.

Although Apple CEO Steve Jobs has encouraged developers to consider OS 9 dead, only about 1.5 million to 2 million of the 25 million Macs in use are running OS X, at least temporarily narrowing the market for Microsoft's Mac products.

A five-year deal that required Microsoft to develop Internet Explorer and Office for the Mac is coming to a close this summer. Microsoft has reaffirmed its commitment to the Mac but has said it will focus largely on those two products and will only commit to new development of one OS version at a time.

"We'll continue this business as long as the business case makes sense," Kevin Browne, head of Microsoft's Macintosh business unit, said at the April event.

Microsoft has not said exactly when the next major version of Office will debut, but the company has said it is on schedule to release new versions within 18 months to 24 months after a new incarnation of the Mac OS debuts. Microsoft started selling Office v. X last November.

One key feature that is not in the Office update is the ability for Office to talk directly to a Microsoft Exchange server. Because the Entourage e-mail and calendaring program in Microsoft Office v. X does not talk directly to the Exchange server, Mac owners can get e-mail but can't manage tasks such as group calendaring.

Browne has said that Microsoft is still trying to decide how it wants to tackle that issue.

The service release also offers less noticeable changes such as faster scrolling, improved printing, and better performance when making charts in PowerPoint. Both the Office X service release and the new version of Messenger are scheduled to be made available Monday on the Mac section of Microsoft's Web site.