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Road to Office 2008: installation and interface

It's been four years since Microsoft last updated Office for the Mac. Is the new Office just a mild reheating of the last version, or a complete overhaul and fresh revitalization you desperately need? How Mac-like is it, and conversely, how Offlce-like is it, particularly when compared to its Windows cousin? We've spoke to a source testing the beta release of Office 2008 for Mac to find out. Here's an overview of what you can expect related to installation and its new user interface.

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 2 of this report.

Setting the Stage for Office 2008

The last release of Office for Mac was in 2004. That version offered functional improvements over the earlier Office v.X, the first version natively compatible with Mac OS X, but didn't radically change the overall look and feel of the software suite. It also added some new features unique to the Mac version of Office, creating some divergence from the Windows side and allowing Microsoft to note that Mac Office has features that weren't yet in the Windows port.

Microsoft also includes other applications in Office for Windows that it does not offer for the Mac (including Project and the Access database), and there are features missing in the Mac versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and in particular Entourage, when compared to Office for Windows.

Office 2004 also highlighted the difficult engineering challenges facing the Mac Business Unit at Microsoft. To appeal to Mac users, Office has to adopt enough of the expected behaviors of a Mac application. However, to remain compatible with Windows —not just in exchanging files but also in the overall look and features —Office for Mac has to deliver the same direction and strategy of the Windows side.

The more Mac-like Office becomes, the more difficult it can be for corporations to support it, because their information technology managers and trainers have to learn a new environment. However, the more Office-like the product is, the less accessible it will be to home consumers, creative workers, and other users who purposely bought their Mac to benefit from its well integrated, "non-PC" computing environment.

Comparing Mac Office with Office for Windows

Microsoft's last version of Office (below, Word 2003) looked very similar to the Mac version of Office, but used Windows-style widgets and conventions, such as placing the menu bar within the document window along with the tool bars.

Office 2008

On the Mac, Microsoft not only uses the standard menu bar at the top of the screen, but has also followed its own historical convention of floating a toolbar of icons outside of the document window (below, Office 2004), somewhat similar to the tool palette of Photoshop or other classic Mac applications originally designed in the 80s.

Office 2008

In 2005, Microsoft unveiled a radical rethinking of how Office would look (below, a demo of Word as envisioned in 2005). Office windows would get a flat metallic look, and the menu bar itself would change from standard drop down menus into glowing buttons of the new 'Ribbon' interface, presenting a series of graphical icon regions the user could change around as desired. The Ribbon idea was met with criticism and Microsoft was forced to change the name to the Fluent UI.

Office 2008

The idea behind the Fluent/Ribbon is to present lots of dense information at once. This concept is similar to a previous Microsoft innovation of dropping items from menu bars in Windows XP so users only see the selections they frequently use. The problem is that shifting information around breaks the muscle memory for recalling where items are. In the case of the Fluent Ribbon, the menus are gone entirely, and presented instead as a series of new collections of buttons to learn. Users proficient in Office wouldn't find the new version any more familiar than WordPerfect or Apple's Pages.

This January, Microsoft finally released Office 2007 for Windows (below, Word 2007 aka 12), in conjunction with the new Windows Vista. The Fluent/Ribbon remained intact, but was joined by a mini toolbar at the top for save and other items, connected to the round Office button designed to reinforce the marketing language of the similarly round Windows logo button that replaces the Start button in Vista. The overall look and feel reflects Microsoft's Vista Aero, with lots of bright, undulating gradients and an extensive use of translucency and glowing shadows in window borders and controls.

Office 2008

Delivering that same look on the Mac would not be acceptable at all. Office 2007's Fluent/Ribbon redefines the menu bar as a fusion of tool bar icons and other presentation, completely destroying the entire concept of unified human interface guidelines. Applications on the Mac don't choose whether to present their menus as menus or as a graphical ribbon, and Mac users don't skin every app to use its own faddish UI of the moment as Windows Media Player does with each release.

While Microsoft gets a lot of flack for copying ideas from elsewhere, it's far better to copy good ideas than to invent bad ideas. The entire premise of a productivity application is to make users productive, not to entertain them.

While the new look of Office 2007 matches Vista and creates a strong brand for Microsoft applications in 2007, it is not designed to translate cross platform; in fact, it was primarily designed to thwart the open source office clones such as Sun's That left the MacBU scrambling to figure out how to deliver a new Office on the Mac.

The New Mac UI

While Microsoft introduced dramatic changes to the look of Office this year, Apple has also significantly evolved the look of Mac applications over the last four years since the days of Mac OS X 10.3 Panther and Office 2004. Apple's bundled applications in Mac OS X followed and expanded upon the Aqua human interface guidelines, sometimes breaking them to try new things. Mail 2.0's bubble Toolbar icons in Mac OS X 10.2 Tiger were roundly criticized for looking different, but Mail, like all other standard Mac OS X apps, still uses the same user customizable Toolbar.

Users can select between icons with text labels, just icons, or just text, and can pick between a large or small icon size. Customizing the Toolbar always means dropping down a sheet of icons that can be dragged and dropped into the Toolbar (below, Pages 08). Apps are also supposed to hide the Toolbar by clicking the pill icon in the top right corner.

Office 2008

Some applications lack a Toolbar altogether, such as TextEdit, iPhoto, or iTunes, and others present a custom Toolbar style; Safari uses a compact Toolbar that doesn't provide text labels for its few buttons, for example, but users still customize the Safari Toolbar the same way as they would Mail, iWork apps, Preview, or any other app with a Toolbar.

A second major Mac convention among productivity applications is the panel, which is common among applications with a NeXT heritage. Apple defined a standard Color Picker panel and Font selection panel, and then began using a standard Inspector panel (below) that works very similarly between Keynote, Pages, iWeb, and Numbers. Apple also presents a standard Media Panel for selecting from audio, photos, and movies stored within the libraries of iTunes, GarageBand, Photo Booth, iPhoto, and iMovie.

Office 2008

Using the same panel in every application reinforces the simplicity of how applications work, at the expense of limiting how differentiated an application can be. The existing Word 2004 does not use the standard Color, Font, or Media panels. Instead, it presents a strangely modal Color window, its own unique Font Formatting Palette with fewer features (below, next to the standard Mac Fonts panel), and no media selection interface at all. Its use of floating toolbars is also an oddly foreign interface idea for Mac OS X.

Office 2008

On page 2 of 3: The MacBU Middle Ground; and Office 2008 Window Toolbars and Controls.