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Microsoft details Mac Office release

Microsoft reaffirms its commitment to the Mac by offering details about a new version of Office, announcing a new streaming media client and releasing its revamped instant messenger software.

Kevin Brown Microsoft on Thursday reaffirmed its commitment to the Mac by offering details about a new version of Office, announcing a new streaming media client, and releasing revamped instant messaging software.

Kevin Browne, general manager of Microsoft's Macintosh Business Unit, introduced the products during a Macworld Expo keynote address in New York.

Microsoft's increased Mac support comes at an important time for Apple Computer, which in September will release a key update to Mac OS X. Apple launched the next-generation operating system in March, but developers have slowly released Mac OS X applications.

Besides offering new features, such as DVD playback and authoring, Mac OS X 10.1 is expected to resolve some issues developers faced in moving their programs to the new operating system. Office 10, the code name for Microsoft's next version of the Mac productivity software, is slated for release sometime after Mac OS X 10.1 ships.

"OS X isn't finished yet," said Scot Walker, a multimedia developer from San Francisco. "Anyone who uses it every day knows that. I don't blame the developers holding off until it solidifies a bit more. It looks like 10.1 is a finished OS X. I can't wait for September."

Microsoft's Macintosh Business Unit is using Macworld as another opportunity to demonstrate continued commitment to the Mac, despite being part of Microsoft, which sells the majority of its products to PC users. At last year's show, the division launched new branding and promotional campaigns.

This year the focus is on supporting Mac OS X, particularly with Office 10. "We want to make sure this product could be held up as a poster child for Mac OS X," Browne said.

Microsoft still hasn't finalized the name for Office for Mac OS X. "We're working to close up all of the branding issues right now," Browne said. "So we're working with the Office 10 code name for right now."

Browne refused to nail down a delivery date for Office 10, which includes four applications: Word; the Excel spreadsheet; Entourage e-mail, calendaring and contact software; and a PowerPoint presentation program.

"We're still saying the fall for the delivery date, but we're going to get more specific on that down the road," Browne said.

Though some Mac users are champing at the bit for Office 10, Apple's Mac OS X version of its mini-productivity suite is enough for others.

"Appleworks 6.2 will do very nicely until Microsoft releases a carbon (native) OS X Office," said Christopher Smith, a Mac user from Tinton Falls, N.J.

Carbonizing Office
Some companies developed products that would work under older versions of Mac OS or Mac OS X, but Microsoft decided "the trade-offs weren't worth it," Browne said.

"With Office 2001, we tried to design an app that looked great in the Platinum appearance of Mac OS 8 and 9," he said. "But that look is completely inappropriate for Mac OS X. We wanted in Office to offer the same elegance of Mac OS X, so we literally ripped the face off Office 2001."

The work was complicated, Browne said, as Office has over 800 dialog boxes that had to be changed "for the Aqua effect. We also rewrote our toolbar icons. They're larger and more colorful."

Aqua, OS X's fluid-like interface, offers many enhancements over the old Mac desktop. Office 10 will take advantage of many interface features, such as Sheets, the panels and dialog boxes that attach to open windows or documents.

Like many other "Carbonized" applications--Apple's term for applications ported to OS X from older version of the Mac OS--Office uses Mac OS X's multi-tasking and protected memory features for better performance.

Office 10 also will support Mac OS X's Quartz 2D graphics engine. "What we've done is take the power of the OS X Quartz layer and join it with the power of Office to present tools for customers to create graphically rich documents," Browne said.

While Microsoft discussed new Office 10 features, Guernsey Research analyst Chris LeTocq said he "was surprised how few there are. I would have expected more from such a major release."

One of those new features, Multiselect, lets Word users search for all the instances of, say, "CNET" in a document and apply formatting, Browne said. Another addition, Clear Formatting, quickly removes from the selection all text changes, such as bold, italic, font or color.

To Excel, Microsoft has added the AutoRecovery feature found in Word and PowerPoint. Now when the spreadsheet crashes, Excel can recover the last automatically saved version of the document.

"We're always eager to make sure applications don't crash, but it's also important to provide a safety valve if they do," Browne said.

Many of the PowerPoint changes are tweaks to existing features, such as saving presentations to Apple's QuickTime format and improved animation capabilities.

Interestingly, Browne hinted that some of the most significant changes would be to Entourage--Office's calendaring, contact and e-mail application--but he wouldn't discuss them.

"We've got more than enough to talk about right now," he said.

Messaging and streaming
More immediately, Microsoft is delivering new messaging and streaming technologies for Mac OS X.

On Thursday, the company made MSN Messenger 2.0 available for download. The new messaging client is a major overhaul supporting Mac OS X and offering new features not even available to most Windows MSN Messenger users. The software also runs on older Mac OS versions.

Browne admitted that version 1.0 is "not the best Mac app, and it's not the best messenger app."

Microsoft faces some unexpected instant messaging competition on Mac OS X from a start-up company. While AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) is available in beta form for the new operating system, upstart Fire from Epicware is a popular Mac OS X download. Fire connects to AIM, ICQ, MSN Messenger and Yahoo Messenger networks, among others.

Still, MSN Messenger will deliver to Mac users a taste of Windows users' future. MSN Messenger 2.0 offers many features found only in the testing version of Windows XP.

"It's feature-for-feature compatible with the Windows Messenger client shipping with Windows XP in the fall," Browne said. "It offers full Passport support and is powered by Microsoft's .Net Messenger service. It also features the .Net Messenger Alerts you probably heard about with the HailStorm announcement."

But LeTocq dinged the product for features found in Windows Messenger not found in the Mac version. "Where's the videoconferencing, application sharing and voice over IP--the really cool stuff?" he asked.

Microsoft also is completing Windows Media Player for Mac OS X, which is "fully native, fully Aqua adapted," Browne said.

Though Apple offers QuickTime 5.02 with Mac OS X, the majority of Web content is delivered in either Real Media or Windows Media formats. With RealNetworks lagging behind, Microsoft hopes to fill the gap on Mac OS X, Browne said.

"We do see Windows Media Player as very important and serving the function of unlocking content Mac users can't get today."

The product is not yet ready for delivery, and Browne would not give a date more specific than "soon."

Walker isn't that excited about a Mac OS X version of Windows Media Player.

"Microsoft's Media Player is horrible for Windows and Mac," he said. "The user interface is tacky and unintuitive. I have yet to go to a site that has Microsoft but not Real."