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Office 2008 for Mac to come this year

Revamped Office for Mac, slated for second half of this year, will run on both Intel-based and PowerPC-based Apple machines.

Putting lingering questions about update timing to rest, Microsoft has announced that the new version of Office for Mac will arrive in the second half of this year.

Office 2008 for Mac, as the product is being dubbed, is a universal binary, the company said Tuesday. That means the software runs both on Macs with Intel chips and on those with PowerPC chips. In addition, it is compatible with the new XML file formats used by Office 2007 for Windows, which hits retail shelves this month.

As with that Windows-geared update, much of the focus on Office 2008 for Mac was on revamping the user interface. The new Mac software, though, will not use Office 2007's "ribbon" user interface, but will instead have its own look, dubbed the "element gallery."

"It's very Mac-like," said Microsoft's Sheridan Jones. "It's not an incredibly abrupt change for our users."

The software has taken somewhat longer to arrive than the 18 months to 24 months that typically elapse between releases. The current version, Office 2004 for Mac, debuted in the spring of 2004.

Microsoft has continued to develop Office for Mac, despite Apple Computer's continued efforts to beef up its iWork suite.

"We think that iWork represents an interesting solution for some customers," Jones said. "We have a different customer set and we have a very robust productivity suite. iWork is interesting for people who don't need as robust a set of capabilities."

Microsoft didn't announce pricing for the suite, but Jones said it will be "roughly similar" to current versions of Office for Mac. The standard version of Office 2004 for Mac sells for $399, though Apple is promoting a $100 rebate on its Web site for those who buy by January 16. The Student and Teacher edition sells for $149, with a $15 rebate currently offered.

Mac-only tools
Although the focus with Office 2008 was more on making features easier to find and use, there are a few Mac-only features in the new software, Jones said.

One is a new program called My Day, which offers users a quick way to view calendar information and unfinished tasks without having to go into Entourage and potentially get distracted by checking e-mail.

"It's always there on your desktop; you can always see it," Jones said. "You don't lose track of yourself."

Another feature unique to Office 2008 for Mac is an improved ability to do page layout work within Microsoft Word. While features such as columns have long been part of both Windows and Mac versions of Word, the new publishing layout view allows users to better visualize what the final project will look like as they edit it. It "really takes the brakes off of Word as a page layout tool," Jones said.

A final feature specific to the Mac version of Office is a new set of templates in Excel, called ledger sheets. The templates allow users to do things like create invoices and balance a checkbook, without having to know how to create the underlying formulas that make the numbers add up.

"It really opens up the power of Excel for everybody else," Jones said.

On the file format front, Microsoft said that this spring it plans to have ready a beta test version of converters, allowing people with the current Office for Mac to read and write documents in the new file formats. Final versions of the converters are due about two months after Office 2008 comes out, Jones said.