The new product--code-named Office 10 and now officially called Office v. X for Mac--will ship sometime in November and cost as much as $499, although many current users could pay as little as $149.
No other Mac product released this year is likely to be more important to Apple than Office v. X, say some Mac users. With other major Mac developers--such as Adobe--lagging behind in getting out OS X products, Microsoft's support could be crucial to driving upgrades of the operating system. Apple released its next-generation Mac OS in March, although many important applications had not yet been written for the operating system.
"Mac OS X needs native software," said Brad Oesch, a Mac user from Zurich, Ontario. "Sure, it's got great features like pre-emptive multi-tasking and protected memory, but it needs applications to take advantage of these new features...Microsoft Office 10 will be one of the most important apps to move onto OS X."
Oesch expressed frustration that other major Mac developers appear to be dragging their heels in supporting Mac OS X. "There's so little for X right now, and professionals simply won't make the switch until their apps are ready," he said.
Because of the applications problem, Oesch reverts to Mac OS 9 to edit video or create animations using Macromedia's Flash. "Making the OS feel responsive and bringing more apps to OS X are the two key challenges for Apple right now," he emphasized.
Office v. X comes a little more than a year after the last major release, Office 2001. Both products offer the same basic set of applications: Word, the Excel spreadsheet, the PowerPoint presentation program and Entourage--the combination e-mail, scheduling, and task- and contact-management software.
The new version fully supports Mac OS X, including the Aqua user interface. Microsoft estimates that about 500,000 of the 3.5 million Mac Office users run the 2001 version. Users of the most recent Office or other Microsoft 2001 version productivity products, such as Word + Entourage SE, will be able to upgrade for $149. Other users can upgrade for $299, while the full suite costs $499. Standalone versions of the individual products, such as Word, will sell for $399.
Users running older Mac OS versions--9.2.1 is the most recent one available--must stick with Office 2001. Those users already running Mac OS X 10 through 10.04 will have to upgrade their operating system. The new Office requires Mac OS X 10.1.
Apple is scheduled to release Mac OS X 10.1 later this month.
Luca Bonatti, a Mac user and cognitive psychology researcher from Trieste, Italy, said Apple and Microsoft have both done well enough for him to stick with Office 2001. The reason: Office 2001 runs smoothly in Mac OS X's "Classic" compatibility mode.
"I didn't feel any special loss by not having a (native) version of Office," he said. "I do think that the upgrade is important for the public at large because it will remove the last reason to resist...switching to OS X."
Many new features in the Mac version are not found in its Windows counterpart, Office XP. Microsoft made significant enhancements to Entourage, but it also fine-tuned Word and Excel, said Erik Ryan, Microsoft's Mac Office product manager.
Entourage now supports international formats for contact addresses, which is important for some countries outside the U.S. where zip codes appear before the city or phone numbers are longer.
"Another new feature we've added is international time zone addresses, so that if you're on the West Coast and you're scheduling a meeting with someone on the East Coast, it will automatically adjust for everyone's calendars," Ryan said.
With Office 2001, Microsoft introduced "categories" with Entourage, making it easier to sort, search or custom-view contacts, e-mail and other data. But unlike Office XP's Outlook 2002, the categories can be color-coded.
"Categories, in our opinion, is a bridge feature," said Michael Connolly, Microsoft's MacBusiness Unit group program manager. "You either use it or you don't."
Midlevel to high-end users as well as those relying on Palm handhelds more typically like the categories, Microsoft has found. "If you're using the calendar function, for example, the user experience is so much richer," Connolly said. "In fact, in usability studies, color-coding is the No. 1 most important aspect of that feature."
Categories also can be used as part of Office v. X's Custom View feature, which lets people organize and filter Entourage e-mail, contacts, tasks and other data. In addition, Microsoft enhanced the links feature, which lets people connect disparate data, such as e-mail, contacts or appointments, for cross-reference.
Entourage now supports Apple's Keychain feature, which offers password-protected encryption of a person's data file.
Office XP differences
Other differences between the Mac and Windows versions of Office are subtle but significant. The new Mac Office does not use the controversial product-activation feature that has raised the ire of some Windows users. For Office XP, people must activate the product over the Internet, essentially locking it to the PC's hardware configuration.
Instead of going that far, Microsoft increased to 24 from 11 the number of characters of the product key code, which is required to install the product.
"We think it might be put in someday, but for this release we didn't see it improving any of the different scenarios that we're targeting," Connolly said.
But one important similarity between the Windows and Mac versions of Office is beginning support for Microsoft's .Net software-as-a-service strategy. In Office XP, for example, MSN Messenger is integrated into the product, offering hooks to .Net. While Office v. X doesn't go that far, the forthcoming MSN Messenger 2.1 will come in the box and support the Office Notifications feature.
Office Notifications work across all parts of the suite, reminding users about pending appointments and other tasks. The feature also runs in the background, even when Office programs are closed.
"Let's say you've signed up for MSN stock alerts or travel info; those updates can be delivered as Microsoft .Net alerts, and those .Net alerts can appear in your Office Notifications application," Ryan said.
Another important change is the ability to share calendar information with Outlook users. Microsoft, in fact, has separate Outlook versions for the Mac and Windows, both of which connect to Exchange server. But Entourage does not use Exchange, making sharing information with Outlook users difficult.
"It works using iCal, a standard which not only Entourage supports but Outlook as well," Connolly said. "In fact, any e-mail or PIM (personal information manager) that supports iCal can interoperate as well."
One area where Entourage is playing catch-up with Outlook and some other e-mail programs is support for rich content, such as video clips or MP3.
"Now you can insert that rich media right into the body of your message," Ryan said. "So if you're sending a picture of your friend's birthday...and you want to send it to your family, it will be right there and they don't have to click on anything to open it."