Office 2008 for the Mac: Can You Say 'Flop'?

Tuesday Sep 25th 2007 by John Welch
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Microsoft announced pricing on Office 2008 for the Mac, but will anyone care?

The Microsoft Macintosh Business Unit, aka the "Mac BU," just announced the pricing for the next release of Office for the Mac. The core suite will be priced at $399.95 retail, $239.95 for the upgrade. A new "Home and Student" edition that ships sans Exchange support or Automator actions will be $149.95, and another new version, the "Special Media Edition" will be $499.95, $299.95 upgrade.

This is an interesting release for the Mac BU. First, for the first time since possibly Office 97 or Office 2000, there were major changes to the file format on the Windows side. This meant that the Mac BU couldn't really even get started on the said file format code until the Windows side had finished. Not that they weren't busy. Thanks to the Intel transition, the Mac BU had to completely revamp their development process from top to bottom in the middle of a product cycle. So they get bitten by delays on the Windows side and moving to Xcode. Not a fun time.

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For anyone wondering why Adobe was able to get CS 3 done so much faster than Microsoft could get Office 2008 done, "waiting on the Windows version" had a lot to do with it. While I don't know for sure, I highly doubt the CS Mac team has to wait for the CS Windows product to be done before they can do the majority of their work. Keep in mind that while the WinOffice team is a major part of Microsoft as a corporation, the Mac BU is a wee small bump on the org chart, buried down in the entertainment division.

The problem is, whatever the reason, the delay in Office 2008 puts this application in a place it has never really been: No longer the top dog, or really, the only dog for productivity software. On the low end, iWork is a more than viable solution. At the same level, you have NeoOffice and OpenOffice. The big disadvantage to iWork is Exchange. If you need Exchange, you're stuck with Mail, and if you think Entourage is a pain to get working with Exchange (it really isn't, but that's the popular perception), and is "crippled" compared to Outlook, well good luck with Mail, it's worse. Even with various add-ons available for Mail/iCal/Address Book, they're still not as functional as Entourage.

NeoOffice and OpenOffice have more functionality than iWork, (and if you count VBA, more functionality than Office 2008), but – and this must be said – they are on the ugly side of "kinda ugly" and neither really are a part of the Mac OS. They're there, but they are limited in how you can integrate them with other applications other than what you can do with files. Neither, on the Mac, includes an email/groupware client, so you're, again, required to use Mail/iCal, but with almost no integration abilities. In theory, Sun is going to release a "native" Aqua version of OpenOffice, but what I've seen so far is, shall we say, "uninspiring" from a UI point of view. And let's face it, Sun's been promising this for a looooong time. I'll believe it when I see the final release.

Next page: Why this release is not destined for great sales

So really, with the removal of VBA (Visual Basic for Applications) in Office 2008, the big advantage it has over the others on the Mac is...Entourage. However, all that has been released publicly about Entourage 2008 is support for Out of Office (OOF) messages in Exchange environments. Oh, and My Day. You can get an idea of what My Day is at the Microsoft Office 2008 site. They have some (horribly grainy and kind of nasty looking Flash) videos on it. So we don't really know what's going to be new in Entourage. Most of the videos show off little more than UI eye candy, which is no surprise, but I hope there's more to Office 2008 than eye candy, OpenXML support and a universal binary, because there's a new competitor for the Mac BU on the Mac now, at least on Intel Macs: Office for Windows.

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With Parallels, VMWare Fusion and Crossover Office, you can run what most people consider the "real" version of Office. Need Outlook's feature set? Don't wait for Entourage, use Outlook. Need guaranteed file compatibility with Office for Windows? No problem, run Office for Windows.

That's the elephant in the room for Office 2008: Office 2003/2007, and for the first time, Office 2008 has to directly compete with its big brother. Sure, you have to buy a copy of Windows, (unless you use Crossover Office to run Microsoft Office), and a copy of Office for Windows, but in a corporate environment? This is so not a problem. The IT department will probably be happier, since if everyone runs the same version of Office, compatibility issues that have plagued Mac Office for ten years now go away. That's no small reason.

So basically, Office 2008 has to be a monster hit, or the only people who are really going to flock to it are going to be those who can't/won't run the alternatives, and can't/won't run a virtualization environment. That's not a huge number to bet on at best.

Now, what do I mean by "monster hit"? Basically, file compatibility issues need to get tons better. Embedded objects have to stop breaking. Layouts have to work right. Files have to be able to round trip between Windows and Mac users with no "special work" needed on the part of the Windows users. However, that's going to mean that the Mac BU has set aside its long-held perception that Macs are only used for "makin' purty pitchers" or in the SOHO market, and have become serious business tools. Actually, it means they had to have set aside that perception about a year or so ago. Based on what they seem to be marketing, I have serious doubts about this.

But if they don't do this, then the question becomes, "What am I paying four hundred bucks for?" If the answer to this isn't something substantially better than "Universal binaries and a pretty UI," then the reply will be, "No thank you, I'll just go with Windows Office", and if that starts happening, then those are Mac BU customers that are going to be hideously hard to get back. This will not do good things for the Mac BU's sales, and while I don't think the Mac BU would get the knife based on philosophical issues, if their numbers suddenly fall off a cliff, well, then I'm not so sanguine about their future.

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