On Wednesday, Microsoft took the last big step in development when it released Office for Mac OS X "gold code" to manufacturing. It also set Nov. 19 as the date for the application suite to go on sale.
In addition, Microsoft clarified pricing for Office v. X and reported 90,000 downloads of the Word X Test Drive.
The new version of Office has quickly emerged as a rallying point for the Mac OS X applications market. Despite the fanfare surrounding OS X--the most significant overhaul of the Mac operating system in 17 years--software developers have been slow in porting their applications to it. Apple released the system software in late March, but major applications didn't start to appear until late summer.
"I am actually excited to see the release of Office for OS X," said Bob Young, a multimedia producer in Arlington, Va. "The application looks very promising, and I, for one, am happy to see Microsoft go out of their way for Apple users."
Like many other Mac users, Young said he was "shocked" several years ago when Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates paid a satellite visit to the Macworld trade show. Many attendees jeered Gates and Apple Computer CEO Steve Jobs.
"After all, are they not a Mac lover's enemy?" he asked. "But Jobs was way beyond all of us. He knew that the success of Apple hinged on the availability of Office for the Mac."
A native version of Office could give many users of Mac OS 8 and 9 good reason to move to OS X, particularly those working in mixed Windows and Mac environments. Mac users can run Office 2001 in OS X's Classic compatibility mode, but programs running that way can't take full advantage of the operating system's features.
"Most of the applications that I run are native on Mac OS X," said Karim Ardalan, president of Albuquerque, N.M.-based MIS, a Mac-based Web design and hosting company. "The one exception is MS Office. I run Office in Classic. Having Office for OS X would be very important to us."
Ardalan said that all of his company's Macs are OS X ready, but only two employees have upgraded to the new version. Office X would make a big difference, Ardalan said.
The release "will be very important" for Mac OS X, said Erik Ryan, Microsoft's Mac Office product manager. "Many customers are waiting for it, and Apple is excited about it. We think it will give people who are waiting to move full time to the platform reason to live in it full time. People will have no reason not to live and breathe in OS X 24/7."
Still, not all Mac users see Mac Office as reason enough to switch. William Harris, a Brookline, Mass.-based graphic-production consultant, sees driver incompatibilities with his "expensive professional legacy peripherals" as more a deterrent to upgrading than lack of native applications.
"To my mind and usage, OS X is the solution to a problem that never existed," he said. "I had zero problems with the (user interface) of OS 9...I, for one, am unlikely to do more than experiment with OS X for the foreseeable future."
Like Office 2001, the new version includes Word, the Excel spreadsheet, the PowerPoint presentation program and Entourage--the combination e-mail, scheduling, and task- and contact-management software. For the most part, Microsoft ported the existing applications to Mac OS X, while adding some new features, mainly to Entourage.
But one thing missing from Entourage X vs. version 2001 is the ability to synchronize contact and calendaring data with Palm OS-based handhelds. While it may appear to be a move away from Palm in favor of Pocket PC, Microsoft is responding to a logistical situation.
"The problem is on the Palm side," said Ryan, referring to the lack of OS X drivers and software from the handheld maker. "We will absolutely provide it as a download when it becomes available. It's something definitely in the plans."
The Office v. X upgrade will cost $299 and the full version $499. Those people using the current version, Office 2001, may, for a limited time, upgrade for $149. That offer applies to other Office 2001 version products, including Word +Entourage SE.
Those people buying Office 2001 from Wednesday through the end of the year will be eligible for a free copy of the new version.
"We're shooting for availability in retail stores beginning Monday, the 19th of November," Ryan said.
Office v. X's predecessor, version 2001, started appearing in stores almost a month before the official launch date. But Ryan said not to expect that this time.
"The 19th of November is the earliest it will be available," he said. "It will be in retail stores throughout the country, but throughout the week it will become more widely available as the days move ahead."
Scott Erickson, Mac Office's lead product manager, said that sales channel checks indicate users are "waiting to get" the product.
Microsoft also is encouraged by the Word X Test Drive, which started in September. The program let users download a beta version of OS X native word processing software.
"We've had over 90,000 downloads to date...so we think there are going to be quite a number of people clamoring for the product when it becomes available," Ryan said.
Microsoft estimates that there are 3.5 million Office for Mac users, "with sales of Office 2001 at about 900,000," Ryan said. The company also says that about 60 percent of Mac Office users work in mixed Windows-Mac environments.
While some Mac users griped Microsoft dragged its heals getting Office X to market, Ryan contended, "it was quite an accomplishment. We did this in a year, and compared to other groups in Microsoft and elsewhere, that's a pretty amazing undertaking."
Ryan emphasized how Mac-like the new product is.
"In developing Office, we really try to build on the niceties of OS X," he said. "You will be hard pressed to find other developers that put the same kind of care, passion and enthusiasm that we did."
While flush with exciting new features, Office v. X also packs new piracy protection features that could irk some Mac users. Consumers and businesses will no longer be able to run two or more copies of Office on networked Macs that use the same serial number.
"When you launch the product, it will quit," Ryan said. It's not unusual for people to share their copies of software, which violates the licensing agreement. The new feature prevents that.
"You think you have a free copy of Office, but you don't."
Still, the piracy protection function could present problems for individuals who are allowed to run Office on two computers, say, a desktop and laptop.
"If you've got two machines, you can run two copies...just not networked," Ryan said.
"As incredibly annoying as it can be to have network serial number checking for applications, I can understand why these companies do it," said Steve Strange, an 11-year Mac fan from Mountain View, Calif. "What I'd prefer, however, is a harsh warning message, rather than not being able to start the application at all."
Ardalan was less concerned. "It will be more of a hassle during installations and upgrades," he said. "But for instance, we use Photoshop and that checks for licenses on the network, and so we are used to running software like that."
In many ways, Office v. X's piracy protection is much less intrusive than its Windows counterpart. Office XP uses a feature called product activation, which literally "locks" the software to the computer through an online authentication process. Users are unable to activate the software on another machine without receiving a special code directly from Microsoft.