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Road to Office 2011: New looks, support for Exchange, VBA

Microsoft's forthcoming Office for Mac 2011 promises greater feature parity with its Windows version, including improved support for Exchange and reincorporated support for Visual Basic for Applications, a feature that was dropped in Office 2008. It also shares more in common with the the look of Office 2010 for Windows, which is also currently in beta.

Microsoft's Mac Business Unit, now headed by Eric Wilfrid, has refocused Office for Mac development to make the productivity suite more compatible cross platform, better looking, and better connected through plans to add co-authoring tools to enable collaborative editing of documents.

What's new: collaboration and online sharing

"The new co-authoring tools in Office 2011 give you and your teammates the ability to work on a file from Word, PowerPoint or Excel [via the Office Web App version only] from different locations, brainstorm ideas, and stay on the same page regardless of time, geography or platform," Microsoft announced in a press release in February.

"Co-authoring improves the processes of working together, removing the pain and frustration of multiple versions, lost edits, or even trying to set a time for the group to meet. With this new feature you can keep track of your team with the Presence Everywhere feature that gives real-time status updates on who is working on the document directly in the application."

Microsoft is also working to integrate its Mac desktop suite into its Office Web Apps initiative designed to compete with Google Docs. Office 2011 ties directly into the Office Web Apps (which are themselves still in beta) to enable users to share documents over the Internet, across platforms. The company's Office Web Apps can be used to upload documents to a Windows Live account or using a corporate SharePoint server.

Microsoft's Office Web Apps are currently limited to a private pool of beta testers, and full functionality is not yet enabled. Eventually the online suite will allow online document editing. That should make it more like Google Docs than Apple's service, which is limited to document sharing and collaborative notes among invited users. However, has been open to the public since January 2009, when it was launched alongside the desktop version of iWork 09.

Office 2011 also bundles Communicator, a client app for working with Microsoft's Office Communications Server 2007 to provide multi-party audio and video conferencing, integrated with the corporate address book.

What's new: a cohesive Ribbon interface

After giving the previous Mac and Windows versions of Office wildly divergent interfaces, Microsoft is now working to establish common ground. The former Elements Gallery of Office 2008 has "evolved" into a Ribbon that borrows from the Fluent UI Microsoft created for Vista and Office 2007.

The latest versions of Office for both platforms will now use a more common, refined Ribbon interface, although there are still platform differences. Microsoft says the effort to sync up the cross platform experience in Office is motivated by the fact that 75% of Mac users also use a Windows PC.

Office 2011 for Mac interface

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