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Microsoft offers new peek at Office 2008 updates

After months of remaining low-key about its next major update to Office 2008, Microsoft's Macintosh Business Unit has returned to the public eye with details of important new updates to the production suite.

MacBU chief Craig Eisler has broken the months-long silence about the new Mac version of Office with new posts to the company's official blog.

The gesture was intended to help enterprise customers prepare for rolling out the new suite when it launches in mid-January, Eisler said. To that end, most of the emphasis in the new updates was said to focus on improvements for using Office 2008 in a business environment, where compatibility with Windows and Microsoft-based servers would be a crucial factor.

Topping the list of changes for these users was Entourage, the Mac's equivalent to the Outlook e-mail client for Windows. The executive noted that most of the news that would flow from the MacBU in the run-up to its mid-December completion date for Office would center around Entourage features and their integration with Windows-based tools. Later test versions of the program are now said to be tied well enough to Microsoft's Exchange servers and to the normal company workflow that Eisler could stay in the Mac software without turning either to Windows or the older Office 2004.

"I have been living in daily builds of Entourage for over two months now," he claimed. "And I am delighted with the stability and reliability of our Exchange support and how well the calendar interoperates with my assistant, who uses Outlook."

Fellow team member Andy Ruff illustrated his point with one of the most basic features of the Outlook client: the Out of Office message. While regularly used in the workplace by Windows users, their Mac parallels have often had to load their web browsers and manually enable the feature through Outlook Web Access and promptly switch it off after they return. This has been a regular problem for Ruff and many other users, who either ignore the feature or forget to disable it when they return to work.

In contrast, Office 2008 now has a simple options pane that gives the choice of setting the exact time and date for when an Out of Office reply is sent, as well as customized messages depending on whether or not the recipient is included in the user's address book —similar to Office 2007 for Windows and its interaction with later Exchange servers.

Eisler likewise alluded to a stronger link between the Entourage calendar and Exchange, methods that Mac clients could use in collaborating through a Microsoft SharePoint server, and upgrades to the Entourage mail database. At least a few non-Entourage subjects, such as deploying Office across a network, are set to be discussed over the next several weeks. The team as a whole was reportedly also confident that the final release would speak for itself.

"The whole BU is using Office 2008, with builds that get better every day," Eisler said. "It’s been a monumental project for the team - I’m proud of the work they’ve done in Office 2008 and we can’t wait to get it into your hands in January."