Microsoft Thinks Different

Office 2001 for Mac is smarter and simpler than its Windows counterpart

In their fight against a court-ordered breakup, Microsoft executives argue that building Windows and applications such as Office under the same roof helps consumers by producing better programs. If so, why is some of the very best software coming out of Redmond these days written for the Macintosh, even though Apple Computer (AAPL) treats Microsoft (MSFT) like any other company developing software for the Mac's own operating system?

The latest evidence is Office 2001, the new Mac version of the venerable suite composed of a word processor, spreadsheet, and other programs. Especially in ease of use, it easily outshines its Windows counterpart, Office 2000.

Why is the Mac software better? I think the main reason is that while the two versions of Office are superficially similar, they are designed for different markets. While many individuals buy Office for Windows, the purchasers who count are corporate information technology managers, so the product is tailored to their needs. This leads to tons of collaborative features designed for centralized installation, configuration, and manageability on corporate computer systems. The next version of Office is even more corporate-centric, with some features that work only if a Windows 2000 server is available on the network.

Mac Office buyers, in contrast, tend to be individuals and small businesses working on a single computer or tiny network. The clearest illustration of the difference is the one completely new component of Mac Office: Entourage, which is a good contact manager and the best e-mail program I have ever used. In a sense, it's the first Mac version of Outlook, but it trades many ponderous Outlook gimmicks for simplicity. It can't automatically log every contact with anyone in your address book. Programs you can add yourself use the limited features of AppleScript instead of Outlook's powerful, and virus-prone, Visual Basic. And Entourage lacks Outlook's confusing customizable views.

PALM READER. Instead, Entourage has features for real people. The mail editor uses Word's terrific spelling checker. It intelligently offers to complete addresses as you type in names. Simple but powerful rules made it easy for me, for example, to show messages from BUSINESS WEEK colleagues in red. And Entourage synchronizes contacts and calendar entries directly with Palm handhelds, the first Microsoft application to do so without help from a third-party product.

As relatively mature applications, Word and Excel did not undergo any dramatic transformation in the new version. But there is a nifty feature. Instead of the jumble of toolbars to control text formatting, page layout, and other features, you get a single "formatting palette" that floats on your desktop and morphs automatically to bring up the controls you need. When you are editing text, it shows you controls for things such as typeface, size, and style. Click on an image in your document, and the controls automatically change to allow you to resize the picture and alter how text wraps around it. The traditional toolbars remain an option. PowerPoint gets the overdue enhancement of a three-pane window that allows you to view the slide you are working on, the list of all slides, and your speaker's notes--all on the same screen.

NOT CHEAP. The one major component of Office 2000 Professional lacking in the Mac version is the Access database manager. But Access is more of a development environment for tapping corporate databases than it is a productivity tool for average folks. Instead, Office provides good links to Apple's own database manager, FileMaker, which is less powerful but easier to use.

As much as I like Office 2001 for the Mac, it isn't the Office Lite of my dreams. Word, Excel, and PowerPoint remain stuffed with features that neither I nor just about anyone I know are ever likely to use. At $450 for a single copy ($270 as an upgrade from Office 98), it is awfully expensive. And it comes equipped with that annoying paper-clip assistant--though the assistant is easy to banish permanently.

Still, with both a Mac and a Windows PC at my desk, I find that Office 2001 is causing me to spend more and more time at the Mac, especially to use Entourage instead of Outlook. I hope the Windows Office team takes a close look at what their Mac colleagues have done--before Court of Appeals judges get suspicious.

Office 2001 for Mac is smarter and simpler than its Windows counterpart

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