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Road to Mac Office 2008: an introduction

Microsoft's Office for Mac 2008 adds new features and a revised user interface to the standard suite of productivity applications including Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Entourage. Scheduled for release in January 2008, the upgrade will be the first new release for the Mac since 2004, back in the days of Mac OS 10.3 Panther.

This report goes to great lengths to explore the origins, history, and maturity of software-based office suites and Microsoft Office for the Mac. For those readers with limited time or who are only interested in what's due in Office 2008 for Mac, you can skip to page 4 of this report.

Ten years ago, Steve Jobs took the stage at the summer 1997 Boston Macworld Expo to announce plans to restore confidence in Apple. Key among those plans was a deal with Microsoft to deliver the first new edition of Office for Mac since Microsoft had halted development back in 1994, prior to the release of Windows 95.

Microsoft recently announced new plans to again introduce a new version of Office for Mac after delays led to a four-year development process. This time, however, Microsoft faces new competition from Apple itself, which has impacted Microsoft's Office 2008 pricing and features. New competition between the two firms in the productivity application arena is great for consumers; here's how the two companies have acted as both rivals and partners over the last three decades in productivity applications, leading up to renewed competition today.

The Origins of Office

The first graphical office application suite wasn't Microsoft Office, but rather Apple's Lisa Office (below), which debuted in 1983 and was bundled with the Lisa computer. Critics gave the Lisa's application software better marks than the computer itself. However, third party developers were irritated that Apple had delivered a full suite of software with the new system, killing any aftermarket for productivity suites.

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Apple hoped the Lisa would move microcomputers into the realm of office business machines, but sales for the $9,995 systems were slow in coming, particularly in comparison to the expectations Apple had set for it. The Apple II had sold 16,000 units in its second year and was considered a success; the Lisa sold nearly 100,000 units but was considered a failure--by 1983, the Apple II was selling a million units per year.

Despite its sales not meeting expectations, Lisa systems were widely deployed as shared systems in many large and medium sized offices, exposing a broad audience of office workers to the new graphical desktop, the mouse, and windowed documents that had until then only existed in technology demonstrations. Lisa computers demonstrated the practical utility of a graphical interface for tasks such as project management and document publishing, delivered via its bundled Lisa Office apps.

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In parallel with work on the Lisa, Apple had also funded development of the Macintosh as a lower priced system aimed at volume sales and individuals. Faced with limited resources, the smaller Mac team could only deliver a subset of the Lisa Office applications on the Mac; instead, it worked to promote interest among third party software developers similar to the market that had sprung up around the Apple II with VisiCalc. However, even more momentum had been growing behind IBM's 1981 DOS PC, with specialized applications such as WordPerfect's word processor and the Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet serving as major reasons to buy the machines.

Microsoft's Applications for Macintosh

After taking over the Macintosh project, Jobs began courting third party developers but found limited interest. Developers were delivering applications for DOS PCs because of the large installed base. Apple's last two systems--the 1981 Apple III and the 1983 Lisa--had both failed to sell in impressive numbers.

Offering software for Apple's new Macintosh was a big gamble; it required additional investment in learning how to write software designed to specific guidelines and using Apple's unique Mac Toolbox, neither of which could be ported back to DOS or other systems if the Mac failed in the market.

In 1981, Jobs approached Microsoft's Bill Gates about developing for the Mac. The two companies had already partnered to produce Applesoft BASIC for the Apple II, and Jobs knew Microsoft wanted to get into the applications business, but that it faced difficult odds on the PC platform against entrenched competitors. That left Microsoft willing to explore other platforms. Microsoft was preparing to release a VisiCalc-clone called Multiplan, and subsequently delivered versions for the Apple II, Commodore 64, and TI-99/4A; the company's circumstances similarly pushed it into the role of an early adopter of the Macintosh when few others expressed much interest.

Apple signed a deal in 1981 that gave Microsoft early access to Macintosh prototypes and development tools in exchange for the delivery of Multiplan for Macintosh, with the understanding that Microsoft wouldn't deliver any mouse-based software for the PC until a year after the Mac shipped. At the time, Apple planned to ship the Mac in 1982, limiting the exclusive deal to late 1983. That same year, Microsoft hired Charles Simonyi and Richard Brodie--who had developed the Bravo word processor at Xerox PARC--to port Bravo as a companion word processor to Multiplan called Multi-Tool Word.

Microsoft's DOS Applications

In 1983, Microsoft announced Multi-Tool Word for DOS (below), which shipped with a mouse for the PC. Apple was outraged, as it had not yet shipped the Macintosh. However, Microsoft was able to exploit a loophole in its contract with Apple, which had set a fixed date for the exclusive period ending in 1983 rather than explicitly floating the clause to the Mac's actual release date, as Andy Hertzfeld described in A Rich Neighbor Named Xerox.

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Even so, both Multiplan and Multi-Tool Word (later renamed Word for DOS) found little interest among PC users trained to use the conventions of Lotus 1-2-3 and WordPerfect. In contrast, Microsoft's applications had far less initial competition on the Macintosh, where Multiplan was released under the new name Excel in 1985, next to the first graphical version of Word (below).

Much of the reason for Microsoft's success on the Mac but failure on DOS came from the fact that it followed Apple's user interface guidelines on the Mac, so its new applications worked the same as every other program on the system. On the DOS PC, every application used its own keyboard shortcut conventions. While Excel and Word shared many of the same commands, nobody was familiar with them. The market preferred to continue using the applications they'd already learned, including Lotus 1-2-3 and WordPerfect.

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Early Mac Apps

While Jobs partnered with Microsoft, Apple also worked on its own applications. The Mac team contracted with former Apple employee Randy Wigginton to develop MacWrite (below), which was bundled on new Macs. Jobs also outsourced a parallel effort to produce a second Mac word processor as a contingency plan in case MacWrite was not finished on time.

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That effort resulted in WriteNow (below), a fast and lean application that was later sold independently as a commercial product. After Jobs left Apple, he bought WriteNow and sold it through NeXT. It later became the included word processor for NeXT systems.

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Unlike Microsoft, other vendors who developed for the Macintosh frequently failed to grasp the human interface guidelines Mac users quickly came to expect. WordPerfect's' initial release for the Mac was panned for being too much like DOS. Lotus' attempt to deliver a Mac spreadsheet called Jazz was a similar failure. Both were derided by the Macintosh press for not being "Mac-like," and both companies later delivered new versions that worked closer to what Mac users expected.

While delivering a highly revised WordPerfect 2.0, the company complained about Apple's bundling of MacWrite, and also later complained to NeXT about its bundling of WriteNow. As a result, Apple spun its own Mac applications off into the Claris subsidiary in 1987, which sold apps such as MacWrite separately. NeXT also removed WriteNow and replaced it with a simpler, stripped down text editor called TextEdit (below), which eventually found its way into Mac OS X.

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That same year in 1987, Microsoft purchased Forethought, a Mac software developer which had released a presentation software program called PowerPoint (below) that spring.

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On page 2 of 4: Microsoft Launches its Mac Apps on the PC; Microsoft Develops Windows for OS/2; Windows 3.0 Gets Bundled on PCs; Microsoft's Mac Applications Stall: Office 4; and Microsoft Focuses on Windows.