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MS readies Office 98 for Macs

Industry observers say the debut will be the first concrete example of the software giant's renewed commitment to the Macintosh platform.

In advance of a January 6 rollout at MacWorld in San Francisco, Microsoft (MSFT) touted the newest features of its Office 98 Macintosh Edition at a demonstration today.

The new version of the popular suite of business productivity applications will increase automation of routine tasks, such as checking for and correcting spelling errors, according to Microsoft. Industry observers say the January debut will be the first concrete example of the software giant's renewed commitment to the Macintosh platform following last August's spectacular $150 million investment in Apple Computer.

Among the most interesting additions to Office 98 for the Mac is a feature that hasn't yet appeared in the Windows-based version, the "self-repairing application." With this feature, Office 98 software will find and restore deleted files, sometimes called "shared library" files, which are critical to the implementation of a program. "Library" files are reusable pieces of program code used to share functions or resources among programs. Previously, Office software had problems starting--and in some cases wouldn't run--if these files were missing.

Other new features include a drag-and-drop installation method (in which users load a CD, drag the Office folder onto the hard drive icon, and the program launches itself), a faster thesaurus feature, and a technology called Office Assistant that provides interactive assistance as a user works in an application. Excel 98 will allow users to create formulas more intuitively.

Meanwhile, Microsoft has sought to emulate the look and feel of Macintosh, for example matching the gray color of Office 98 tables to that of the Mac color scheme. The previous version of Office for the Mac, ported from Windows, was not "Mac-centric" enough, Microsoft has admitted.

Only the self-repairing application feature is sure to appear in the Windows version of Office 98, according to Microsoft. However, the No. 1 developer of Macintosh software has not yet committed to building Office--or anything, for that matter--for the upcoming Rhapsody operating system, which will be commercially available by next summer, according to Apple's timetable.

Office 98 for the Mac will consist of new versions of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, as well as the Outlook Express email client and the Internet Explorer browser. The suite will also include support for popular file formats like HTML and Quarterdeck. It will not include the Access database.

Pricing is not yet available.

Alex Lash contributed to this report.