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Microsoft to unveil Mac Office details

The company is releasing details about a new version of Office for the Macintosh, which promises to bring the software up to par with its Office 2000 Windows counterpart.

    Apple enthusiasts are hoping that Microsoft's newest Office suite has been worth the wait.

    The company today will release details about a new version of Office for the Macintosh, called Office 2001, which will feature integrated email and contact management software.

    Microsoft last week accidentally leaked some details about the new version of the software suite, which was developed under the code-name Office 9, on its Mactopia Web site.

    The first major update since Mac Office 98, the new version promises to bring some parity with its Office 2000 Windows counterpart and to introduce a few Mac-only features. Microsoft has not nailed down a release date, nor has it fully explained how it will handle an important change in the Mac operating system coming this summer.

    The software giant is caught in a difficult transition period, as Office 2001 is scheduled to be released after Apple Computer's next-generation Mac OS X operating system.

    Kevin Browne, general manager of Microsoft's Macintosh Business Unit, dismissed any problems this might present, arguing that Microsoft is working closely with Apple as it completes Mac OS X. But he could not give a timetable for the release of a Mac OS X version of Office, nor could he say when Office 2001 would ship, other than giving a broad target of the second half of the year.

    "For people using Mac OS 8 and 9, which is everyone in the universe, this will be a very important product for them to consider," Browne said. Given that most consumers will take some time to move to the new operating system, Microsoft's greater priority is supporting the existing installed base, he said. To date, Microsoft has shipped 2.5 million copies of Mac Office.

    Mac OS X, with a new user interface code-named Aqua, is a revolutionary step forward in Macintosh operating systems, analysts say. Apple borrowed elements from Unix that bring Mac OS X's performance up to par with other business-class operating systems.

    Apple's operating system, slated for summer release, will be available in three flavors: Classic, Carbon and Cocoa. Classic supports existing applications, and Carbon harnesses Mac OS X's new features, such as the ability to multitask--running multiple programs without degradation in performance.

    Microsoft said in January that it would support Mac OS X. The software maker tentatively plans to release Mac OS X versions of its Internet Explorer Web browser and Outlook Express email client around the same time as the new operating system.

    But Microsoft has had some major slips getting Mac software out when promised. A Mac version of Internet Explorer 5, for example, appeared in March after more than a six-month delay.

    The new Office suite, like the old, offers Mac versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint capable of sharing files with their Windows counterparts. But Microsoft--recognizing that Macs are increasingly used as communications tools and by consumers and small businesses--also is focusing on improving ease of use, tightening application integration, and adding more Internet features, Browne said.

    "The Mac is now more a communications device, and the new (Office) features reflect this," he said. "At the same time, we wanted to make a product that was more Mac-like and more compatible than ever."

    Although Office 2001 looks good on paper, the product's features are far from complete, and development has not moved along far enough for a public beta. But some of the features near completion are key, particularly a new component--code-named Alpaca--for managing time, tasks, contacts and email.

    "With this application, we're comfortable enough with the progress to come out to talk about it," Browne said. But other areas, such as the pervasive simplifying of tasks, are far from complete. "That's the area of our product where a lot of the details are still being finalized," he said.

    Alpaca is a compelling addition to Mac Office. The product borrows heavily from its Outlook 2000 Windows counterpart but offers fewer collaborative tools and adds several innovations not found in Outlook.

    Email features include tracking of the last 150 messages, editing in Word, and spell-checking with the Encarta World English Dictionary. Another enhancement lets people link disparate data, such as contacts, email, tasks and documents. The new address book features color-coded categories, access to contacts from any Office application, and plotting of contact addresses on maps.

    Until now, Microsoft's only personal information manager (PIM) was a Mac version of Outlook requiring Exchange Server 5.5, although Outlook Express 5.02 offers an address book. But recognizing that "90 percent of Mac users are not using Exchange," the company wanted to expand its offering, Browne said. The software maker will continue to offer Outlook 8.2.1 and Outlook Express 5.02, but it expects that many Office users will favor Alpaca.

    Microsoft's PIM will compete with the Personal Organizer from Chronos and PowerOn Software's Now Up-to-Date and Contact, among others.

    PowerOn Software spokesman Robert Leeds dismissed any competitive threat Alpaca might pose, referring to it as "1,000-pound vaporware."

    Microsoft has yet to pick a final name for Alpaca, but it is expected to be something other than "Outlook."