Microsoft's Office for Mac 2011 'best Office ever,' analyst says

Suite adds ribbon and Outlook for Mac, restores long-demanded Visual Basic macros

Microsoft today launched Office for Mac 2011, the newest version of its application suite designed for Mac OS X.

One analyst immediately dubbed it "the best Office ever."

Office 2011 is Microsoft's first for the Mac since January 2008. Microsoft added the once-scorned "ribbon" interface that debuted in Windows' Office 2007, dropped the Entourage e-mail client in favor of a Mac flavor of Windows' Outlook, and restored Visual Basic-based macros.

Gartner analyst Michael Gartenberg said the new suite is Microsoft's most impressive suite effort to date.

"This is the best Office ever, not just on the Mac," said Gartenberg. "It brings the Mac version to parity with the Windows version, but it still feels like Mac software, not a Windows port. Mac Office doesn't feel like you walked into your house in the dark and someone rearranged all the furniture."

Several new or restored features in Office for Mac 2011 were long requested by veteran users, particuarly a closer cousin to Windows' Outlook and the return of macros. Both were especially important for IT staffers who had to figure out how to integrate Macs into their organizations and users bent on having tools equal to their Windows brethren.

"I think the improvements show that Microsoft listens to its customers," Gartenberg said, pointing to the reappearance of Visual Basic macros, a feature Microsoft ditched in Office 2008 but reinstated for 2011. "Enterprise customers were not happy when that was removed," Gartenberg noted.

Microsoft defended the 2006 decision to abandon Visual Basic by saying that to bring the technology to Intel-based Macs would have delayed Office 2008 by two years. In the end, that edition was delayed, although not to that extent, when Microsoft realized that the Office code quality was subpar and called off a 2007 launch.

Shortly after Office 2008's debut, Microsoft promised to reinstate macros in the next version.

"What impressed me was the overall refinement of the product," said Gartenberg when asked whether there was a stand-out enhancement or addition that wowed him. "It's Office, isn't it? It's not a revolutionary product. But this is the ultimate refinement."

Microsoft didn't hesitate to tout features, including integration with several cloud-based services that Windows users can access from Office 2010. Among them: The free Windows Live SkyDrive online storage service, SharePoint collaboration tools and Office Web Apps, Microsoft's attempt to compete with rival Google's Docs.

"Office isn't just about what runs on a desktop machine or laptop," said Eric Wilfred, the general manager for Microsoft's Mac Office team, in a statement Tuesday. "Office shows up across your computer, on the Web browser, and on your mobile device."

Platforms Microsoft has not committed to include Apple's iPhone and iPad. While Word and PowerPoint documents can be viewed from the iPad's browser via Office Web Apps, they cannot be edited. Nor has Microsoft publicly discussed bringing its Office programs to the iPhone.

Gartenberg thought Microsoft should explore both the iPhone and iPad. "It wouldn't surprise me to see Office apps under iOS," he said, referring to the mobile operating system that powers both devices. "That would be a huge opportunity for Microsoft."

Although Microsoft's Mac Business Unit (MacBU), the development group in charge of Office for the Mac, was shifted from the company's entertainment group to its business division earlier this year, it still retains considerable independence. Microsoft's business group is responsible for Office, among other parts of the company's portfolio.

"MacBU isn't part of the mobile group, it's not part of the OS group," Gartenberg pointed out. "So it might be allowed to do anything that enhances Office. I would not be shocked if they moved on iOS at some point."

The new suite comes in two editions, down one from its predecessor: the $150 Home and Student and the $280 Home and Business. The latter includes Outlook and a longer stretch of free technical support. An academic version identical to Home and Business sells for $100 to college students.

Today Amazon priced Home and Student at $110 and $130 and for one- and three-license editions, respectively, and Home and Business at $175 and $240 in one- and two-license versions.

Microsoft announced last summer that it would not sell upgrade versions of Home and Business, a departure from past practice but in line with moves it made earlier in the year with the Windows edition, Office 2010.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

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