Gang of One: Microsoft’s official Machead talks Office

David Braue
17 October, 2008
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Microsoft’s Mac Business Unit, which is responsible for the ongoing development of Office’s Mac version, employs around 200 people – and just one in Australia. AMW sat down with Danica Aitken, ANZ product marketing manager with the Macintosh Business Unit (Mac BU), to hear her thoughts on the latest version of Office and her plans for building the Microsoft brand among the Apple faithful.

AMW: Office 2004 was pretty widely used, but became a liability when Mac OS X moved to Intel and the suite slowed down thanks to having to run using Rosetta. How have you found the reception to Office 2008, which if nothing else is at least a universal binary?

Aitken: We have sold three times as many copies of Office 2008 in our first four months on the market, as the previous version sold in the same timeframe. There are a lot of reasons behind that, and we expected that just because of the response to the beta version of the product. It also has a lot to do with the prod, which was a lot more Mac-ified.

One of the things we really wanted to do in terms of launching the prod was looking at ways of enhancing it to provide a more simplified user experience. This version allows beginners and long-term users to work with it in the same way; one example is where we redesigned the UI, which gave it discoverability. Although we also added a lot of features in the 2004 version, we had found many just weren’t used because users couldn’t find them.

AMW: What are the biggest enhancements with the new version?

Aitken: One thing we have is this new Elements Gallery, which allows you to see things like templates and the palette. Those who are on the Mac platform, who are used to using Photoshop, InDesign and so on, are used to the palette type editing system; by putting underlining and so on within the palette, we’re looking at ways of trying to make the program work the way a Mac user is used to working.

AMW: Why didn’t Office 2008 get the ribbon interface that was introduced with Office 2007 for Windows?

Aitken: We like to use our customer feedback to identify and improve the products. When we were creating the product, we wanted to pull the features across from Office 2007. Yet while we want to pull the great features from that version, we want to do what’s appropriate for our market. It’s created for the Mac users, and we understand that Mac users are different, expect different things, expect a different interface.

AMW: Entourage has gained a reputation as being like Outlook, but not enough like Outlook. Why is it so different?

Aitken: I think that Entourage in 2004 had had some limitations, and I think we’ve come a long way to overcome that. But a lot of the Entourage functionality does come down to your ability to connect to the Exchange, and in order to connect to Exchange you do need to be using the Standard or above product. With the Exchange connectivity comes a lot of the experience of those using the Windows platform – the ability to send meetings, accept and decline meetings and so on.

I’m not across those comments [that it's not as good]; they may be using the Home and Student version. There’s always room for improvement, and one thing we’re doing is always listening to customer feedback to improve anonymously. Customer can report issues, but I’ve generally heard positive feedback. We did release a service pack, which had a lot of enhancements and increased stability. The one thing we can do is to keep listening to that feedback and improving it.

AMW: Is the Mac version of Office seen as a priority within Microsoft?

Aitken: It is, but in saying that the Mac BU is around 200 employees worldwide. It’s a very small group, but we punch above our weight.

AMW: Was there a sense of urgency to complete the update given that Office 2004 was being slowed down by Rosetta?

Aitken: Not going through Rosetta was a huge change; when they brought out the Intel Macs we had to use Rosetta to translate the coding, which slowed it down significantly, so it’s great that 2008 works natively on both the PowerPC and Intel. It’s just a so much better product, and I think that really contributes to the success it has enjoyed. While it’s essentially a different prod across the platform, it’s different because the usability is different.

AMW: The Access database has been part of the Windows Office suite for many versions. Why has it still not been ported to Mac OS X?

Aitken: In Windows, it depends on which version of office you’re using [whether you get Access or not]. But on the Mac, it comes back to when we are looking at the future versions, we’re working closely with customers to find out what it is that they’re actually after in terms of the productivity suite. Right now, Access it just not a program that’s a huge priority for the platform. We’re really trying to put products within the suite that Mac users are after.

AMW: Would it ever be considered down the track?

Aitken: Again, it comes back to feedback; if we start getting enough feedback that that’s what they want.

AMW: What about all the extra apps in Office 2007? There are so many that Microsoft had to change its name from being a ‘suite’ to being a ‘system’.

Aitken: Within Word 2008, we have a view called Notebook Layout view. While it’s not exactly OneNote, a lot of its functionality is very close. One thing you’ll find, again, is that while we have a very similar product, we’re looking at a different target market. Another thing you’ll find in Word 2008 is the Publish Layout view. This brings in the top features of Microsoft Publisher, and you won’t find it in the Windows version. [In Word 2008] you can import templates, create brochures, do a lot of photo editing, use text wrapping, and lay out a full professional presentation within that product. So, we have pulled across a lot of the Publisher features into Word. It’s called a View but it has a lot of functionality.

AMW: Many users have complained about the omission of Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) scripting in Office 2008. Why was this decision made and how is it being addressed?

Aitken: We found that, in developing 2008, a comparatively small portion of the user community needs those macros. And there are customers who don’t require cross-platform scripting, who are able to use AppleScript to migrate their VBA macros if they want to continue. In terms of making a very Mac oriented product, we did try going with AppleScript, and in terms of it being something that we could add to the feature set when we were prioritising, VBA didn’t go into that version. There have been a lot of people asking for it, so we are bringing VBA support into the next version of Office. We are listening.

AMW: Macs still have a relatively low penetration in businesses, which are Office’s core market. Do you see Office 2008 targeted more at business or home users?

Aitken: We’re definitely seeing an uptake in the business community. Office 2008 introduced a huge jump in the functionality of Entourage, the ability to connect to Exchange, the ability to do out of office messages, calendar functionality, and so on. It’s quite a step up for using the prod from a business perspective, and obviously everything else that comes with connectivity to MS Exchange comes with that as well.

The other thing we’ve found is with Excel, we have brought out great ledger sheets and so on. It’s not your all encompassing accounting suite, but it’s great: if you’re a small business, it allows you to import your credit card and other statements. In terms of Excel, it has really stepped up.

There’s also the Office 2008 Special Media Edition, our premium SKU, which includes Expressions Media. This is a really comprehensive digital asset management system that stores up to 128,000 assets. This makes it brilliant for the creative industry, if you’re storing photography or art files and so on. It stores the assets and you can tag them, catalogue them, view files in the different file formats.

If you haven’t got Photoshop installed on your Mac, it allows you to open your file and view them even if you don’t have the program, and you can export them into different file formats as well – for example, if you have a client who wants this particular file in 1MB, 5MB and 10MB sizes, you can do that. It’s by no means Photoshop, and it’s definitely not there to do any significant touchup on photos.

But with everything moving onto your computer these days, your assets are actually really important, as is being able to find, use and store and catalogue them, and export to file formats. That’s where the Special Media Edition is a little different and why with business users using that version, get the std version of Office Mac 2008 and a digital asset management system, which on its own can cost quite a lot more than the entire suite put together.

AMW: One of the biggest issues with using Macs is fear of compatibility issues with Windows-using peers. How have you addressed this on the Mac while keeping your commitment to innovate?

Aitken: It really is the most compatible suite on the market, because we’re sharing core techs with Office 2007 for Windows. If you are a company and sending files, you want to know you can send a files and it looks like the file you sent on the other end. This is one of the core competencies of the product, and it’s a huge benefit that you can know that when you send that it is going to open up on the windows platform like you sent it.

AMW: What can we expect from the next Office upgrade?

Aitken: I’m not really across exactly what we’re looking at putting in the next version. I know we’re working on it, and that we generally have around a four-year lifecycle so it’s safe to say there’s something coming before that. We’re obviously looking at bringing that VBA support back. And the next Office on Windows will have a lot of great updates, so and we’ll be pulling many of those across.

In the 2008 version we have taken, from 2007, the OpenXML base file formats – which are a lot less susceptible to corrupting – and the graphics engine, Office Art. We do pull across all the core features; it’s just that we may present it in a different way. It all comes down to the UI and customer usability studies, and just making sure we present the features in the easiest way possible.

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