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Microsoft readies new Mac Office

In a sign of commitment to the Apple market, the software giant said a new version of Office for the Mac is on its way and that another is in the works.

In a sign that Microsoft plans to be in the Apple market for some time, the software giant said Tuesday that a new version of Office for the Mac is on its way and that another is already in the works.

Until recently, the software maker had a deal with Apple that required it to develop both Office and Internet Explorer for the Mac, but that pact has lapsed.

Since then, Microsoft has maintained that it is committed to the Mac market, but only for one version of Mac software at a time. In July, Microsoft said it would halt development of future versions of Internet Explorer for the Mac, citing Apple's creation of the Safari browser.

However, Microsoft now says that it will deliver Office 2004, the latest version of Office for the Mac, by the middle of this year. In an interview, Microsoft marketing director Tim McDonough said that a further version of Office for the Mac is already in development.

Microsoft's renewed commitment is good news for Apple, as Office compatibility is often cited as a key requirement by Mac buyers. Microsoft executives say the Mac business is doing well, though they did not give any specifics.

"Our business is doing phenomenally well," McDonough said. "I think the Microsoft-Apple relationship is doing well...What makes it work now is we understand where our mutual opportunities are."

Phil Schiller, an Apple senior vice president praised the news from Microsoft.

"Office is a must-have productivity suite for many Mac users, and we're pleased that the Microsoft Mac (business unit) continues to show its dedication to the Mac platform by delivering great products for Mac users now and for years to come," Schiller said in a statement.

Microsoft is also trying to spur sales by promising that those that buy the current version of Mac Office--Office v. X--between now and when the new version ships will be given a free upgrade, paying only the cost of shipping the new CDs.

In addition to the new version of Office, Microsoft is also updating its Virtual PC software, which allows Windows programs to run on a Mac, albeit more slowly because the software emulates the PC's x86 processor. Virtual PC 7 adds compatibility with Apple's new G5 processor as well as other features that Microsoft did not disclose.

Pricing for both the new versions of Office and Virtual PC will remain the same as that of previous versions, Microsoft said. Microsoft cut the price of Mac Office last year by $100, to $399, for the standard version. In addition, the company sells a "professional" version of Mac Office v. X for $499 that includes the Virtual PC software.

McDonough outlined a few of the new features planned for Mac Office, but he did not offer a detailed list of what has changed in the new version.

Among the most significant changes are a new project view, in which Office users can associate groups of items, such as e-mail, contacts, appointments, Office documents and other files; and a new way to take notes within Word. A separate note view within Word has tools for creating, editing and viewing notes, as opposed to formal documents.

In building advanced note-taking features into Word, Microsoft has taken a different approach than it did on the Windows side, where the company created a separate program for taking notes, called OneNote.

"We thought this was the best way for people on the Mac to take notes," said McDonough, noting that OneNote is aimed primarily at Tablet PC owners who take notes in digital ink.

The additions to Office 2004 bear some similarity to OneNote, such as the ability to record audio and have that linked to notes. Documents created in the note taking feature of Office 2004 for the Mac can be read in Office 2003 for Windows, but there is no similar means for Mac users to read files created by OneNote.

One feature that is new to Office--but quite retro for longtime Mac users--is a clipboard where people can store frequently used items, such as graphics or text. Such a feature was a popular desk accessory in the early versions of the Mac OS.

"What's old is new again," McDonough said.

Another improvement is a compatibility checker that details which items in a file could cause problems for people using a different version of Office. For example, the compatibility checker might note that a graphic that is rotated 45 degrees might not display properly in older Windows versions.

"We feel like we have a great grasp of what Mac users want," McDonough said.