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Microsoft Mac support may change little

Questions remain about whether Microsoft's renewed support will really change the status quo.

    While Apple (AAPL) got a boost from Microsoft's (MSFT) renewed commitment to release software for the Macintosh platform, questions remain about whether Microsoft's pledge really means that any new, positive changes will occur at Apple as a result.

    At the Macworld Boston trade show this week, Microsoft announced it was Macworld
saga investing $150 million in Apple and agreed to release new versions of Microsoft Office--the popular suite of productivity applications--for the Mac platform. Microsoft also committed to developing and shipping future versions of its Internet Explorer and development tools for the Macintosh.

    Ostensibly, Microsoft's pledge to release software for the Macintosh OS 8 is a resounding endorsement for Apple. But some analysts and observers portray it in more bleak terms. In short, it's simply a statement that Microsoft will not abandon Macintosh software development.

    "I don't think Office for Mac will be released any better or any faster because of the agreement," said Jeff Tarter, publisher of Softletter, a newsletter covering the software industry.

    "The question is what the quality of that software will be. Everybody in the Mac world knows the [PowerPC] version of MS Excel (the spreadsheet program) ran slower than it did on the 68000-based systems. Microsoft has a history of releasing disastrous Mac products," said Tartar.

    "I'd be astounded if Microsoft kept any of these promises, because it would be first time it kept a promise," Tartar added.

    At one point, Microsoft had committed to releasing Office simultaneously on the Windows and Mac platform, a promise that has since vanished. Office 97 has been out for several months for Windows machines, but it will be called Office 98 when it comes out for the Mac.

    Maybe more troubling is that no commitment was made by Microsoft in regards to Rhapsody. Rhapsody is Apple's forthcoming operating system based on technology acquired last year from Next, the software company owned by Apple cofounder Steve Jobs. Apple is currently developing the software and has plans to release the new OS by mid-1998.

    "We have not formally agreed to release Office for Rhapsody," said Microsoft CFO Greg Maffei when asked about the company's plans to release Office on Apple's forthcoming operating system. Maffei made the comments in a press conference call.

    Having applications written specifically for Rhapsody will be critical for Apple as it tries to convince people there is a good reason to buy the new OS.

    "I'm one of those who think that operating systems are irrelevant in the absence of strong applications," said Tarter, implying that Rhapsody won't go anywhere without a compelling suite of applications.

    But Chris LeTocq, an analyst with market research firm Dataquest, says he can see some logic in not talking about Rhapsody.

    "I think they [Apple] didn't want to raise the issue of Rhapsody in people's minds today. It's a matter of timing--Apple has got the weight of the hammer behind [trying to sell] OS 8, so they don't want people to focus on Rhapsody," he said.

    "I'm sure Apple will do what it takes to help bring Office to Rhapsody," he added.

    But the commitment from Microsoft is important nevertheless both now and later for Rhapsody. "Microsoft is guaranteeing Office will be there, and that's what Apple needed to have happen. Whether Office is running in a Mac compatibility environment or in Rhapsody mode, it'll be there," said LeTocq.

    Chances are, LeTocq said, the software will run in Rhapsody's compatibility environment, called the "blue box." The blue box will offer backwards compatibility with applications written for the current Mac OS 7.x and 8.0.

    Microsoft will continue its development for the Macintosh platform for the next five years and release the same number of applications for the Mac as for Windows, said Maffei of Microsoft.

    Due to the way the products are developed, Maffei said, some software features may first be released for the Macintosh before Windows and vice versa.

    Office 98 for the Macintosh is expected to be released before the end of the year. This version will have some features unique to the Mac, Maffei said.

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