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Smile When You Say That, Microsoft

By Charles Haddad I'll give this much to Kevin Browne. The chief of Microsoft's Mac unit really knows how to play on the neurosis of Mac enthusiasts. At the opening of MacWorld three weeks ago, he issued a thinly veiled threat: Microsoft would seriously reconsider publishing Mac versions of its software if Apple didn't do a better job of promoting its new operating system, OS X.

Browne knew that most Macheads would receive this threat with gritted teeth. In our hearts, we longed to say, "Go ahead, Microsoft, make our day." But instead we bit our collective tongue.

GALLING SILENCE. Why? Because we fear that, without the respectability that Microsoft provides, especially in the corporate world, the Mac platform would collapse. And that's pretty tough to swallow. We find ourselves genuflecting to a company that most of us consider a shameless pilferer of Apple innovations -- a company that cleverly marketed those pilferings as its own, usurping Apple's rightful place as the leader in personal computing.

Would the Mac platform really collapse without Microsoft's support? I, for one, am skeptical. Certainly, the Mac wouldn't suffer any loss in computer functionality.

It's true that Microsoft Office offers more features than any other single program for the Mac. And, in all fairness, the OS X version of Office is the best ever -- on either platform. But, while much improved, Office is still buggy and often complicated to use. And it's very expensive at $440. Microsoft does sell individual components separately, but not for much less. A standalone version of Word costs $350.

EASY ALTERNATIVE. You can duplicate most, if not all, of Office's functionality, however, with programs from smaller developers -- and for less than half the cost. Take word processing, which remains the single biggest use of computers today. Mac word processors Mariner Writer and Nisus Writer each offer about 80% of Word's features. They even boast a few still absent in Word, such as the built-in ability to have the computer speak text. And what a bargain -- Nisus and Mariner are each priced at $80 for the shrink-wrapped versions and $30 as downloads.

The biggest advantage Word has over Mariner and Nisus is its outliner. Nisus has one, but it's feeble. Luckily, there's an excellent little program called OmniOutliner that bests the outline features in Word. And you can easily copy and paste OmniOutliner outlines into either Mariner or Nisus. Its price: $30. Between OmniOutliner and Mariner or Nisus, you've got 90% of Word's features for less than half the cost.

The second biggest use of computers is crunching numbers. Again, Microsoft's Excel rules the spreadsheet market. But that doesn't mean there aren't excellent alternatives. Two of them are Mariner's Calc and Apple's own AppleWorks. Both programs perform most of the same functions as Excel, and at a much lower price. The shrink-wrapped versions of each sell for around $80, but AppleWorks is included free on most new Macs. As for Web browsing, there are plenty of alternatives to Microsoft Internet Explorer. They include OmniWeb, iCab, Opera, and of course Netscape, which is working hard on a new OS X version that matches IE.

CREDIT WHERE ITS DUE. I'm speaking heresy here, of course. And, if Mac users really began to abandon Microsoft, I would expect the company to strike back, maybe by limiting the compatibility between the operating systems. Such retaliation would represent the biggest threat to the Mac platform. Right now, Windows runs 90% of the world's PCs.

To its credit, Microsoft has worked hard in recent years to ensure documents created in Office, whether spreadsheets, letters, or presentations, are interchangeable between PCs and Macs. But that could change if Microsoft started monkeying with the Mac's compatibility with Windows. Gates & Co. have tried similar tactics in the past, most recently with Sun's Java software. Microsoft first tried to change Java to suit Windows and then excluded Java from the launch of Windows XP.

Such shenanigans have never worked for long, though. Eventually, Microsoft caved in and decided to support Java. Why? Because Java continued to grow, even without Microsoft's support, and users clamored for compatibility. The same could happen with the Mac. After all, there are 25 million Mac users worldwide, and our numbers are growing every year.

READY TO RUMBLE. Besides, if Microsoft tried to play compatibility games, Mac programmers would strike back by creating their own workarounds. They would probably have little trouble outwitting their Microsoft counterparts. Just look at all the hackers who continue to pirate Microsoft software with ease, even as the company tries to increase its security measures.

I'm not saying the Mac community should turn on Microsoft. Redmond has been, and can continue to be, a valuable ally. But we shouldn't take any lip from the company, either. Its software is good -- but no better than plenty of other smaller developers out there. Haddad, Atlanta-based correspondent for BusinessWeek, is a long-time Apple Computer buff. Follow his weekly Byte of the Apple column, only on BusinessWeek Online

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