Office:mac — beyond 2008

Matthew JC. Powell
23 January, 2008
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Geoff Price is Product Unit Manager with Microsoft’s Mac Business Unit (MacBU) — that’s the people who actually build the products. Having just completed the gargantuan task of getting Office:mac 2008 out the door, he sat down with AMW during the Expo to talk about the road so far and the road ahead.

For all the talk about compatibility between Mac and Windows versions of Office, you’re still coming under a lot of criticism because of the lack of support for Visual Basic (VB) scripting in Office 2008. For a lot of customers, the lack of macro compatibility means they don’t have that cross-platform experience. What is Microsoft doing to help people cross that divide?

We had a lot of work going into Office. This is the biggest release for us — the investments, the APIs, being Intel-native, the functionality in co-ordination with the Windows Office. So it really was an engineering decision — my team’s decision. It was going to take as much as two years’ work with a lot of key developers to bring Visual Basic in and we had a lot that we wanted to bring in, and we wanted to get this release out. In the meantime we’ve made a lot of improvements in AppleScript and Automator.

This is going to mean some challenges for some customers. Things can be rewritten in AppleScript, and we have a migration guide and tutorials on how to convert things.

If people still need macros, we’ve made sure that, for instance running Excel 2004 in Rosetta in conjunction with the new Excel for Windows works, so we recommend that for some customers.
Currently we’re evaluating options and working with customers [to work out their priorities]. We don’t have ways of embedding scripts with a document, for example.

So it’s still on the radar as something that may happen?

Yes. For those who are using VB heavily, it’s a huge issue. We’re totally aware of that and working with them

The other big question has to do with Messenger. The Mac version still doesn’t support audio and video chats, and the version that ships with Office 2008 is the same as the update that appeared some months ago — there doesn’t seem to be anything new.

Our main engineering focus is on Audio and Video. Because we have the two services — the internal Office Communication Server [for corporate messaging] and the personal Windows Live Messenger chat — both in our client, previously both of those had different mechanisms for doing audio and video. Currently we’ve got the company working together — all these groups — and we’re moving to a brand new audio-video stack that is going to be common across those platforms

How did you end up with different stacks in the first place?

Historical differences in the code bases and the technologies and some differences in what they wanted out of the audio video. One is optimised for widely-distributed use of audio-video, one is optimised for really high-quality audio video within a corporate network. So they kind of came from different places with the technology originally. Now we’re going to have a great solution that fits everybody’s needs and we’re getting on board with that.

So we focussed our engineering on that rather than doing either of the two separate previous services, and that is all coming together. We actually have an internal beta of Messenger running audio and video — well, actually it’s corporate customers running Office Communication Server have it now, but it’s a beta for the OCS corporate chat that is currently doing audio and video. That is the foundation for getting it working in the personal service as well. So that’s all coming, that’s all down the road still, we don’t have a date pinned down for release. But there are more people on the team working on it than I have had in the past.

Now that 2008 has shipped, you’ve got more people available.

That will help!

Typically [Messenger] releases more rapidly [than Office]. In the past usually we have time to release with the Office box, but this time we’re so focussed on audio-video we didn’t want to take time to do other features and release a release now, we just want to keep the momentum on audio-video so when the service goes live with this we will have that ready.

We would love to have it already but we need the service to be there for us to have it for everyone to use.

And finally, Exchange support in Entourage. As long as there has been Entourage, users have been calling out for Exchange compatibility. This release brings it a lot closer, but it’s still not all the way there.

Originally, on Classic, it didn’t do Exchange at all (which was why it was Entourage, not Outlook). Since we shipped on OS X, at some point the decision was made to focus on Entourage as the client and bring the Exchange functionality into Entourage. Since then every release and update has added Exchange server functionality.

Again now in 2008 we’ve put in more Exchange functionality — so we’ve got the Out of Office assistants, a lot of work on calendaring in general, the robustness of it, the ways you manage your calendar now are similar to what you have in Outlook. And the way you respond to invites — there’s a lot of detail in that. There’s improvements to the setup, and authentication, Kerberos sign-on, and there’s a bunch of other details.

But there’s more to do, and we are absolutely doing it.

What sort of things — what are the priorities?

All the way along we have been talking with customers. We bring people in to talk about their Exchange needs and we just prioritise them. What that list looks like right now, I actually don’t know off the top of my head. Our goal at this point is to get to Outlook parity. That’s what we’re targeting and that’s what we’re getting to.

This past release of Office was the biggest on so many fronts for us. We had a lot of things coming together in Office 2008 and there’s so much work that we’ve done when you look at compatibility with the file formats and with the grid and the all-new graphic layer across the applications, there’s a tremendous amount of functionality in there.

Exchange was one of the big focuses for Entourage and going forward I think we’re just going to be growing the resources we have to get on this and get it solved because it’s a huge priority for the business. It’s a huge amount of functionality that Outlook has.

Does the switch to Intel make life easier or harder, given the Outlook code is Intel-based?

Generally that stuff doesn’t impact our porting all that much. Entourage doesn’t really share a lot of code with Outlook. Sometimes it can help if we don’t have to do certain things to tweak the code to make sure it works but it’s still code and generally the problems with porting have more to do with what APIs you’re calling. On [the Exchange team’s] code, if they’re calling APIs in Windows that don’t exist on Mac, that’s where the work is. It’s not so much in how it’s compiled.

Does it make it more difficult in that you’re still trying to support two processor architectures?

The big differences in processor architecture that trip us up involve byte ordering problems, so if you’ve got code that’s sending data out over the network and it’s making assumptions about “oh, just stick an integer out on the wire” you need to know what your Endian order is.

In general we don’t use [the pseudo little-Endian mode, an Intel-emulation feature in early PowerPC processors, up to and including the G4]. Generally your compiler is assuming one Endian order and you have to go in there with Assembly and start messing with that stuff. Virtual PC took great advantage of that, and that was a big issue [with the switch to G5 processors] but in general our code likes to know “which way am I” and we actually compile it that way.

The work we have to do now is a lot of protocol work. In a lot of cases we’re using new protocols to get the Exchange functionality working. Out of Office Assistant in this release uses Exchange Web Services protocols and we’ve been working closely with the Exchange team on that one. Those are fantastically designed APIs and our developers are really happy working with them — we’re getting a lot done rapidly and the Exchange team is working great with us on those and making them very performant (sic) and doing the things we need them to do. They want Exchange Web Services to be a really great general protocol for working with Exchange and Entourage is a great client to show that off for them as they build that particular set of protocols.

We look at each problem, and what is the best way, technically, of getting this next functionality done. Sometimes that can be porting some code, and sometimes it’s not. But generally the switch to Intel didn’t help us a lot because it really is more about the APIs.

Office:mac 2008 bears a lot of physical similarities to Apple’s iWork, in terms of Word having discrete text and publishing views, and all the templates, and so on. Is there an extent to which Office (which clearly has a different target audience than the typical iWork user) is responding to that philosophy of application design?

There is some of that. In the case of Publishing Layout View, this is something we’ve been talking about a long time and we already knew customers were using it for publishing layout tasks a lot and they didn’t have an experience optimised for that. Word already had the capability, so it made a lot of sense to focus on that experience.

Our designers do look at what are the standards on the platform, what are emerging controls and metaphors for things that people are seeing in other applications. iWork’s included in that certainly because Apple sets a tone on the platform.

We absolutely focus on our customers and what we want to build but we do reference “has somebody already done this” and if people have already learned it that way that’s going to help them use it faster for us.

Matthew JC. Powell travelled to San Francisco as a guest of Microsoft.

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