Microsoft and Mac, Happy Together

Office:mac 2008 offers Apple computer owners a host of special features Windows Office users will envy

Microsoft (MSFT) Office is so closely associated with Windows that few people realize the first version, in 1989, was for the Apple (AAPL) Macintosh. The newest upgrade, Office:mac 2008, achieves a level of intimacy with Mac's OS X operating system that would make a lot of Windows users jealous, if they only knew.

Microsoft pulled this off by finally taking full advantage of the Intel (INTC) processors that Apple started using in 2006. The new Office also brings the first full Mac support for new "file formats" that Microsoft introduced on Windows a year ago with Office 2007. That means if you're on a Mac and a colleague wants to send you a Word, Excel, or PowerPoint file from a PC, he no longer has to save it first in an older format.

Office:mac, which goes on sale on Jan. 15, doesn't try to be a clone of the Windows product. For example, the developers chose not to adopt the "ribbon"—a new feature that replaces menus such as File, Edit, and View in the latest version of Office for Windows. Instead, Office:mac adds something called the Elements Gallery, a menu bar that provides various helpful shortcuts. In Word, the gallery includes an easy way to create tables of contents and bibliographies. Excel's gallery offers an assortment of preformatted worksheets for such purposes as budgeting and invoices. The gallery in PowerPoint includes slide templates, layouts, and transitions. Shortcuts for inserting tables, charts, and graphics are provided for all programs.

Not for the Corporate Drone

Such flourishes reinforce the idea that even on an Intel platform running Microsoft programs, Mac users are getting something special. The software is also less corporate-focused than the Windows product. In one sense, the new Mac version of Word is like the more capable big brother of the Pages word processor that's part of Apple's iWork suite; it's more at home creating an illustrated newsletter or a research paper than drafting a corporate memo with multiple authors and approvals.

And in a change deeply satisfying to anyone who cares about typography, Word finally gains support for ligatures. These are special characters that combine two or more letters, like the "ffi" in Office. You might not even notice the difference, but in a subtle way, ligatures make printed text look much more professional. The Windows version of Office still does not support ligatures. Excel also seems designed for the needs of small businesses, rather than for corporate financial modelers.

One concession to corporate users is much better support for Microsoft's Exchange mail and calendar system. While not quite the equal of Outlook on Windows, it comes close. And it one-ups Outlook with My Day—a small floating window listing your upcoming appointments.

Better Than the Windows Version

To run Office:mac 2008, you need one of the latest versions of Mac OS X, either Tiger or Leopard. These give you access to a program called Automator, which lets the user create automatic scripts for repetitive tasks. With Office running on Tiger or Leopard, you can also send a PowerPoint presentation to iPhoto and load it from there into an iPod. (You can't do the same in Windows.) And you can save any document in Adobe (ADBE) Acrobat's PDF format with the click of a button.

Office 2008 has the usual complex Microsoft pricing. The full version costs $400, or $240 as an upgrade. The Home & Student Edition is a great buy at $150 for use on up to three computers, but it lacks support for Exchange mail and Automator integration. A Special Media Edition—for $500, or $300 as an upgrade—adds professional tools for managing photos and other digital assets and expanded support for Exchange and Automator.

I don't think Office 2008 will cause many people to switch from Windows to Macs, though there are plenty of other reasons to do so. But it does give Mac users—especially creative professionals, students, and home users who are the core of Apple's market—an office suite that's superior to the Windows version in many ways.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.