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Road to Mac Office 2008: an introduction

Office for Mac 2008

Ten years after the 1997 deal between Apple and Microsoft, the two companies are again directly competing in productivity applications. While Apple's latest iWork 08 offers a reworked, simplified approach to page layout, word processing, presentations, and spreadsheets, Microsoft's upcoming Office 2008 suite layers together elements of the unified Leopard interface with concepts borrowed from the Windows version of Office--including bits that look like they belong in Windows Vista. While offering a lot of new ideas of its own, the MacBU has also worked to closely follow the Windows version, making it easy for users to move between them.

Originally expected this summer, Microsoft announced a six month delay in the arrival of Office 2008, which now targeted for mid January, a full year behind the Windows version of Office 12. Faced with competing against iWork, Microsoft has also relaxed the restrictions in its education version pricing. It will now offer Office 2008 in three reworked packages:
  • The new Home and Student Edition is now $149, with no restriction to education buyers.
  • The Standard Edition is $400 ($230 upgrade). It adds "full support" for Exchange Server in Entourage and Automator scripting.
  • A new Special Media Edition costs $500 ($300 upgrade). Since Virtual PC is now obsolete, Microsoft acquired the QuickTime-based iView MediaPro and now includes it under the name Microsoft Expression Media, as an asset management suite designed to import, annotate, organize, archive, search, and distribute media files.

What's New in Office 2008

Like the v.X and 2004 versions before it, Office 2008 is a significant release. It's now a Universal Binary, allowing it to run natively on Intel Macs rather than relying on Apple's Rosetta translation technology used to run PowerPC code. Until today, all Intel Macs have effectively run one of their most important productivity packages in a mode that rendered it artificially sluggish.

Microsoft also adopted an iWork-style template-based design in Word (below top), Excel (below middle), and PowerPoint (below bottom).

Office 2008

Office 2008

Office 2008

Along with those main applications, Office also includes the most recent version of MSN Messenger and new revision to Entourage, which includes the new My Day application (below) for presenting events and reminders in an organizer widget view, although on the desktop rather than only within Dashboard.

Office 2008

A Mixed Bag

In some areas, Office 2008 delivers new features missing from both iWork and the Windows version of Office. In other areas, it falls short of its Windows cousin: some elements are awkward and aren't helped by a sometimes ugly mix of user interface elements that look and feel clumsy compared to the unified look of iWork. Whether users can overlook these odd details largely depends on how they use Office documents.

For example, the new Office promises greater compatibility with Exchange Server and the Office 2007/OOXML file formats supported in the Windows version. While iWork already offers support for these formats, Microsoft uses them natively, not just for import and export. If you are constantly exchanging documents with Windows users, you might find iWork's translation inconvenient or impractical.

Office 2008

One of the most obvious new changes in Office 2008 is its overhauled user interface. Rather than using the floating button bars Office has always used (above, Word 2004), the new version adopts the look of standard Mac OS X toolbar within the document window (below). This offers user configurable icon layouts, although not in the standard drag and drop sheets Mac users will expect.

Office 2008

Below the new toolbar is the new Elements Gallery (above, the blue section), which displays a menu of templates and themes as well as selection of graphics, charting, tables, and text art tools. Its new animated and colorful interface may sometimes be labeled overpowering and busy, but the oddest aspect is its abrupt juxtaposition in the otherwise subtle grey document window. Among the items displayed in the Elements Gallery are Word's Document Elements, which presents templates for adding a cover page, a table of contents, headers and footers, and a bibliography.

A More Sophisticated Palette

The new Office 2008 apps also present the existing Formatting Palette (as appears above in the Word 2004 screenshot) with new iWork-style Inspector icons (below). This expands the Formatting Palette to include:
  • an Object Palette of drag and drop shapes, characters, and clipart.
  • a smart looking Citations Palette for managing works referenced in a bibliography.
  • a Scrapbook manager for organizing multiple clippings for pasting into documents.
  • a Reference Tools section for presenting definitions, synonyms, language translations, and encyclopedia entries.
  • a Compatibility Report tool for checking features that may not translate to earlier versions (it saves file formats back to Word 97).
  • and a Project Palette for organizing documents and related information together by project.

Office 2008

Some aspects of the new Palette are interesting and seem very compelling, but other portions feel overloaded and largely impractical. Why squeeze a shelf of reference works into the Inspector? Why spin the Inspector around like a Dashboard Widget to present settings (below)? Why use a transition like Apple's "genie" Dock effort to place the Inspector into the Toolbar?

Office 2008

This mixed bag of innovation and oddity runs throughout the new Office 2008. Users wanting access to more sophisticated features will love some of the new features, and might like the new graphical feel of Elements Gallery. Mac users accustomed to the iWork interface and the general look of Leopard may find the new Office excessively animated and garish. Nobody can say its just conservative and boring however.

Coming up next: a preview of how the new Office for Mac compares with Microsoft's latest Windows version, how it stacks up as a modern Mac app, and how the MacBU has changed the Office user interface and installation system over the existing 2004 version.