Weekend Edition: Time to disclose

Matthew JC. Powell
4 January, 2008
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It’s been a long time between drinks for Microsoft’s Mac Business Unit (known as MacBU, possibly because sneaking up behind CEO Steve Ballmer and yelling "Mac! Boo!" scares the bewillikers out of him). The last major release of its flagship product was four entire years ago when the obliquely capitalised Office:mac 2004 hit the streets. Since then the company had to completely rewrite its Virtual PC emulation product to make it work on the G5, and only barely had that out the door when Apple switched to Intel processors, necessitating a complete reworking of the entire Office suite.

And a complete reworking is indeed what it has received. The productivity apps — Word, Excel and PowerPoint — look and behave quite differently to their predecessors. There are some modernising touches — cleaner lines, minimal icons, subtler colours, Leopardesque symbols — and also some entirely different approaches to document navigation (such as, for example, the navigation panel.

Some users will like the new look, and some won;’t. I’m not a fan, for instance, fo the fact that each and every document has New, Open, Save, Print and a few other menu commands as buttons at the top of the window. It’s kind of Windows-like if you ask me, and there’s a reason I don’t choose to use Windows. In the 2004 version these comands were in a toolbar at the top of the screen, separate to the documents. You hit a button, and it operated on the top-most document. Now it’s possible to have any number of "Save" buttons visible on your screen at any one time, and you must be sure to hit the one that applies to the document you’re trying to save or you’ll be in strife.

Yes, that’s a picky point. I get paid to be picky. I don’t understand why Microsoft has decided to fill my screen with multiple iterations of a toolbar, the functionality of which was ably handled by a single elegant toolbar at the top of the screen in the previous version of the program. My fear is that Microsoft has got the idea in its head that the Mac and Windows versions of the program ought to behave more like each other — which would mean that the Mac version ought to be more like the Windows version. That was the thinking that gave us Word 6 for Mac, back in the day.

Of course making it more Windows-like might have advantages if only it were also more compatible with Windows versions of Office. Yes, we have complete compatibility with the new XML file formats from Office for Windows (an absolute necessity) and yes, we have backwards compatibility with older versions of Office. But we lose our macros. Everything from simple fixes for menu items that weren’t there to complex scripts that strip out extraneous carriage returns and format documents for print at the push of a button — all gone. In the beta version I’ve been testing the Help files are incomplete, so there’s not been much help for me to get any of that functionality back using Apple’s system-level automation, AppleScript. I hope this is amended in the final version.

Memo to clever software developers: invent a thing that converts VBA scripts to AppleScript and back again, and the world will beat a path to your door. Well, I will anyway.

Aside from a question mark over the interface philosophy, and rueing my lack of automation, I’m largely pretty pleased with Office 2008. You can see where four years’ work went. Excel, in particular, manages to be consierably less intimidating than previous versions. Maybe it’s just because I’m not a number-cruncher by trade, but when I have to use a spreadsheet I want to be able to do the things I need to do, do them quickly, and get out of there. I use perhaps five percent of the functionality of any spreadsheet application — and I don’t think I’m too atypical there.

Excel 2008 takes the approach that I’m not a number-cruncher and I’m using a spreadsheet because I can’t be bothered figuring out how to set up a database. Ever since Excel v.X that idea has been lurking somewhere at the back of MacBU, and Excel 2008 brings it right to the fore. If you want to start with a plain grid into which you throw your numbers and formulae, you can do that. If you want to create a simple flat database of the members of your club, or the value of your record colection, or a tonne of other database-like tasks, Excel is ready and willing to help. It has a multitude of pre-formatted templates ready to go, and of course it’s simple to modify them to your own needs.

It’s kind of like Numbers in that regard, and I can’t help feeling that the two design teams have been peering over their shoulders at each other, both trying to work out how to grab hold of that "spreadsheet as basic database" customer. FileMaker has long acknowledged Excel as its chief competitor, and Apple’s response to that comes both in Numbers and Bento.

The application we all live in these days is, of course, e-mail. Entourage has evolved markedly in this release, with better integration between its various components (The Project Center actualy makes sense this time round) and a generally cleaner look. More importantly, it’s very stable and markedly snappier than the 2004 version. A lot of early criticism has been levelled at MacBU for the paucity of new features in Entourage 2008, but it’s unfair — if Microsoft had done nothing with Entourage other than stopping it freezing for no good reason and getting it to open a mail inbox in less time than it takes to make a sandwich, long-suffering users would rejoice. Both of those criticisms of Entourage 2004 have been fixed, and there are numerous tweaks besides.

Of course, the headline new feature of Entourage is its touted compatibility with Microsoft Exchange, the e-mail server environment used in many corporate workplaces. Unfortunately (or, rather, very fortunately) Niche doesn’t actually have an Exchange server, so I’ve been unable to test this feature. Have a look at our First Looks (on the web and in the 02.2008 issue of the magazine) to see what our testers thought.

There is, of course, far more to Office 2008 than I have the time to rattle off here. You should go look at our closer examinations of the individual applications. All I’ll say is that I’ve been using Office 2008 for some time now and, aside from missing my macros terribly, I wouldn’t go back. I think a lot of people will upgrade to Office 2008, and be glad they did.

We’ll have more coverage of this release, including interviews with members of the MacBU, in our coverage from Macworld Expo in San Francisco. If there’s anything you particularly want to know, add it as a comment below.

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