The biggest software release of '08 is Microsoft Office 2008 for Mac, and it's hitting the streets this month. Read on to find out all you need to know about the new package.
It's been a long time between drinks for Mac users waiting for a new version of Office, and a lot has happened in the four years since the last release. Apple has slowly released its iWork office suite, and competition from online players like Google and ThinkFree is heating up as well.
In fact, it's a tribute to Apples engineering team that the Rosetta environment, which lets Intel Macs run older PowerPC applications functions so well. And it has meant that in the past two years since Apple introduced its first Intel Mac back in January 2006 customers wanting to use Microsoft Office could happily continue using older versions without the need to upgrade. (Of course, it must also be assumed that Apple paid special attention to ensuring Microsoft Office would survive the PowerPC to Intel transition smoothly, given it is such a critical application for Mac users.)
It goes without saying that Office for the Mac is one of the best selling software applications on the platform, and it's no surprise that Microsoft has been frantically rewriting and developing a new version since Apple announced the shift to Intel.
While Office 2008 for Mac is an important upgrade, it's not in the same league as Office 2007 for PC. In fact, the Microsoft team tested the new Office 2007 'Ribbon' interface on Mac users but it was ultimately rejected because, according to Han-yi Shaw from Microsoft Mac BU, "Mac users are very passionate about the very qualities that have drawn us to the Mac and expect no less from Office for Mac. Menus, Toolbars, and Palettes still play an important role in defining the Mac experience so we’ve continued to evolve in these respective areas, while complimenting the core Mac-like UI." While that all sounds a bit technical, in reality it means things like toolbars which used to float freely and have a mind of their own are now bolted on to the main window. About bloody time. Hopefully it also means Adobe's annoying PDF toolbars will stay away for good.
The biggest change for users, though, is not in the updated interface but in the fact that Office 2008 is now a Universal application, which means all the applications within the suite (Word, Excel,Powerpoint, Entourage and My Day) run equally well on both PowerPC and Intel Macs.
Office 2008 also introduces Mac users to the new Open XML file format which has many advantages over the older formats but principally helps 'reduce the risk of lost information due to damaged or corrupted files and also results in smaller file sizes — up to 75 per cent smaller than comparable binary documents', according to Microsoft. For those who choose not to upgrade, Microsoft has released a free file converter available here.
How do you make the best and most comprehensive word processor better? You try to turn it into a desktop publishing package. While Microsoft has tried this before with rather woeful results, Office 2008 is the best shot yet.
The new elements gallery makes setting up your document to look good a cinch. And there's a new 'Mac-only' publishing layout view which lets you drag-and-drop images (including integration with iPhoto) on to the page for easy desktop publishing. The new view puts Word up against other consumer-centric desktop publishing applications like Pages and to a lesser extent InDesign.
|Word gets a new 'publishing layout view' which makes basic drag-and-drop image placement, with text wrapping easy
There's good and bad news for Excel junkies. On the plus side, the size limit of spreadsheets has increased to 16,000 columns and more than one million rows. For more basic users there is a new formula builder and formula auto-complete that presents a drop-down list of available formulas as soon as you start typing. Unfortunately, Microsoft has dropped macro and Visual Basic (VB) support in Office 2008 -- a huge downside if you need to open spreadsheets created by Windows users (such as the people who publish the forms in Excel format on your office intranet -- a likely scenario for the few Mac users in each organisation). If you rely on these tools you'll need to stick to Office 2004, or run your Intel Mac in Windows mode and use Office 2007.
|Charts also look better in Office 2008 - and previewing different types is as easy as clicking
|The new formula builder makes it easier for novice users to cobble together formulae.
With the constant development of Keynote, Powerpoint is finally coming up against some serious competition. But Powerpoint 2008 levels the playing field substantially, and in particular makes creating diagrams much easier - the corporate set is going to love it. The new SmartArt Graphics engine lets you converts bulleted lists to graphical slides with a click of a button. Full compatibility between Office 2007 and 2008 is also assured, thanks to the shared graphics engine between the two suites. There are more options for exporting your presentation too, including a 'Send to iPhoto' option which saves your presentation into a series of JPEG images that can then easily be added to your iPod for viewing.
|To this....with one click!
While Entourage still isn't as capable as Outlook, Microsoft has improved its ability to connect to Exchange servers in Office 2008. Entourage now supports Kerberos Single Sign-on Authentication, out-of-office assistant and managed folders. On the other hand, it still doesn't support the single feature that Mac users really want: the ability to connect to an Exchange server in its encrypted MAPI mode. Instead, you'll still have to beg and plead with your Exchange Server administrator to turn on IMAP and WebDAV -- something most admins won't be prepared to do, especially if the Mac-on-the-network is not kosher.
Microsoft has spruced up the visual appearance of Calendar data and made better provisions for marking items as to-dos.
Like previous versions, Entourage also supports Apple sync services which means iCal and Address Book can always stay in sync with information in Entourage. This is an important feature if you're an Entourage user but want to take advantage of devices that only talk to iSync like the iPhone, for example. However, Microsoft still hasn't built a suitable converter to convert Outlook PST files to Entourage libraries. If you're new to the Mac then you'll need to rely on third party solutions like Export-Import Entourage 1.3.10 or O2M for this.
If you’re completely new to the Mac platform and don’t need Exchange integration I’d strongly recommend trying Apple Mail (included with OS X) as it provides better compatibility with OS X, especially with Time Machine, Apple’s automated backup solution. Time Machine has a hard time backing up Entourage's mail database, which is one giant file. Each time you receive an email, Time Machine registers it as a change to the file and backs up the entire database file again. Apple Mail, in contrast, stores each email as a separate file, which is much better from a backup perspective.
|The main Entourage window, looks pretty similar to Entourage 2004
Overall I've been impressed with the speed and stability of Office 2008. I've been using it now for over a month and have yet to experience a crash of any sort. Installation was easy and the installer even asks you if you want to remove previous versions of Office at the end of the process. Application performance is impressive, particularly when using new features like Word publishing layout view.
It's unfortunate that Excel doesn't support macros or VB anymore. But Microsoft probably figures that if you need the compatibility, and you're using an Intel Mac you should just be using Excel for Windows. On the other hand, cynics might say this is a sly attempt by Microsoft to keep Windows and Office as the exclusive domain of the corporate desktop -- a small defensive move to ensure Macs don't get any traction in the corporate workplace, perhaps.
There's also a small widget-like application called My Day that lets you track priorities and stay on top of daily activities no matter what application you are in. I had a quick play with it and can say with some degree of certainty that it's pretty much useless.
Still, each new release of a big Office suite - for Mac or PC begs the question whether the upgrade is worth the cost. With so many other alternatives on the market you've got wonder whether spending $229 (that's what the Home and Student Edition costs) or more is worth it. Apple sells iWork for $99 (30 day trial available) and Google Docs is free. If you've already got a version of Office for Mac that works well I'd seriously consider these alternatives before upgrading.
Microsoft has applied some of the Vista version magic to Office 2008 with regard to pricing. Thankfully, however it's a bit easier to follow. There are two main options; a basic Office 2008 for Mac standard edition ($649 or $399 for an upgrade) or an Office 2008 for Mac Special Media Edition ($849, or $549 for upgrade) which comes with a full version of the Microsoft Expression Media (a digital asset management system that lets you visually catalog, organise and present all of your digital assets) and more advanced Microsoft Exchange Server support, for those that need to plug Entourage into an Exchange server.
It's worth noting that the Microsoft Expression Media program is not as lame as you might think -- it's the old iView Media application that Microsoft acquired and rebranded. It has always been an excellent, and very powerful and speedy image management app.
Luckily, there's also a Mac Home and Student Edition ($229) that includes three user licenses for consumers and students at home, but doesn't include the added Exchange support.
Office 2008 for Mac will be officially launched at Macworld on Jan 15th, and will be available in Australia on Jan 31.