The shame of Microsoft’s Mac Business Unit

Many credit Microsoft’s Mac support for saving the platform in the late 90’s. This is very true, but while they did this it’s important to keep hold of the more objective view of their Mac support.

It’s whitewash.

Microsoft’s motivation to support Apple in its hour of need was clear. Antitrust proceedings forced Microsoft into a corner, and the destruction of Apple would have only proven Microsoft’s nature as a monopoly force that was eradicating its competition.

While Microsoft maintains a set of apps for the Mac which appear reasonable and complete, these are designed only to exhibit lack of support for crucial items.

  1. Microsoft’s current Office product for Mac does not open or save Office 2007 formatted documents, and will not until 2008, over a year after the release of the Windows version. This makes the Mac more difficult to use in workplaces and even homes where individual users are beginning to adopt Office 2007. Even Apple itself has introduced Office 2007 document support into its own applications, and indeed integrated it with its latest version of the operating system. Are we to believe Microsoft’s engineering team are incapable of doing this? Clearly one must assume this is by design.
  2. Microsoft’s Entourage mail client, part of Office for Mac, lacks crucial Exchange support such as MAPI and Global Address List, which makes it nearly useless in the corporate environment. Further, its device synchronization support with devices such as PalmOS or Windows Mobile is non-existent. One has to use third-party applications to accomplish this.
  3. Microsoft’s Entourage client also purports to synchronize its calendar and contacts with the Macintosh ‘iCal’ and ‘Address Book’ applications – however in so doing it removes all categories and other important data from the synced items, throwing a well organized calendar or address book into total disarray. Implementing this is not difficult, and has also been developed by third parties – but having to add third party apps makes no case for corporate or home use.
  4. Microsoft’s upcoming Office 2008:mac will do away with support for VBscript and Excel macros, which are crucial for use in the business environment. Many businesses now using Office for Mac in these situations will be forced to either not upgrade and face document format incompatibilities, or switch to the Windows version of Office.
  5. Microsoft Messenger, the Mac MSN client, lacks audio and video chat support. These items are so trivial to implement that 2 developers could do so in a day of work. Even Yahoo! messenger supports audio/visual chat, and one can’t say Yahoo’s Mac engineering team is as large as Microsoft’s. This is by design. Many users employ video chat to speak with friends and acquaintances, and the lack of this support in MSN on the Mac makes it highly undesirable.

Microsoft has claimed that their next version of MSN Messenger for Mac will support video, but has included the crucial detail that this will be for ‘corporate users‘. I take this to mean that home users, the principal users of audio/visual chat on MSN, will still be left without. Given Microsoft Office:mac’s nonviability in the corporate environment for other reasons, this would be a highly cynical act.

This is only a short list. Microsoft kneecaps their Macintosh product line in order to keep people interested in Windows, and I’m annoyed with the tech press for ignoring this issue.

Back in the late 80’s and through to the mid-90’s, document format compatibility was key to getting computers to work together and getting them adopted for use, and it was very difficult. This is 2007. In a world where computers of all kinds speak to each other freely using international standards, why are we still dealing with this?

14 responses to “The shame of Microsoft’s Mac Business Unit”

  1. It is a testament to the stupidity of IT depts. that Office is still a viable product. The FREE OpenOffice is close enough in features that I can’t se sepnding MONEY on Ofiice.

    I 100% agree with your comments, but, ironically, Mac Office is actually NICER to use, as an Application Suite than the Windows version (in terms of bugginess and UI). I’ve used both. I think the RECENT Office problems stem in part from the fact that Ballme ri s complete idiot, with far less sense than “Bill”

  2. It’s even worse. Did you notice the time frame for the release of audio/video capable version?

    “Early 2009.” wow.

  3. I also totally agreee with the first author. More could be added to Microsofts neglect of the Mac-users.
    2. Why hasn´t Microsoft bothered to make a Mac version of their databaseprogram Access?
    2. I have used Excel both on PC´s and on Macs, and I must say that while Excel on PC is a very nice program, Excel for Mac is almost useless in the school-environment where I use it. I have made a lot of models for use with my pupils, using Excel combined with a lot of macros/macrobuttons. Using these macrobuttons on PC everything happens fast and smoothly. Using the same documents with the macrobuttons on Mac-Excel is a nightmare, extremely slow and painfull. So if somebody says that Excel for Mac is as good as Excel for PC, I totally disagree. Excel for Mac is a second-rate program compared to PC-Excel, and I am sure that both Microsoft and Apple know it!! This is not a problem for Microsoft, but sooner or later all these topics mentioned above is going to be a problem for Apple!

  4. I just attended a 3 day conference where I was shocked at the number of Mac users I met. Their #1 complaint: I don’t like to boot into Windows for just one application. Many expressed joy that they no longer use Windows, period. Don’t be surprised to see Apple release iWork for PC users… at $79 it is a steal. By the next release of iWork, many small offices could survive with very limited use of Office. Apple needs to speed bump R&D on Numbers. With 15.4 Billion in cash, they can afford to make this investment.

  5. Microsoft have also confessed (confirmed) that Office 2008 will still not be able to do right-to-left text for languages like Hebrew and Arabic. This is years after Mac OX X added the capability and years after other programs managed (e.g. the free NeoOffice).

    Office 2008 could well turn out to be the biggest flop ever. Our company has already decided it is not worth spending tens of thousands of dollars upgrading to it (and we are not even a particular large company).

    It used to be that the threat of Microsoft discontinuing Office for Mac filled Mac fans with terror, nowadays I would say “Go ahead, make my day” using my best Dirty Harry impression.

    … Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement I kind of lost track myself. But being as this is Mac OS X 10.5, the most powerful operating system in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you’ve got to ask yourself a question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?

  6. Indeed, Office on the Mac is a mess. Ditto the free sluggish alternatives. The iWork suite shows promise, but it’s a pain to do any serious work in it — there’s just not enough there right now and it lacks support for scripting.

    Mac Office 2008 looks like a fairly attractive upgrade, but the suggestion that Applescript and Automator actions should replace VBA Macros should have instead been penned in the manual as, “HAHA JUST BUY WINDOWS OK”.

    Applescript is horrid. The only attractive thing to come out of rich Applescript support, I think, is being able to use Ruby and Python with their respective bridges. So you have access to a lot of additional functionality outside the MS application sphere.

  7. Interesting. I hadn’t thought of the fact that Python and Ruby would be available to scripters by extension. Some pretty powerful stuff could be done to Excel spreadsheets with it, I imagine…

    Which is moot anyway since VBA is what’s needed most for legacy reasons, but still interesting.

  8. @Reidar Olav Meling:
    Why hasn’t Microsoft bothered to make a Mac version of their database program Access?

    Cost-benefit. The cost would be enormous, while the benefit would be negligible. Mac users already have Filemaker, which sucks pretty bad, but would remain fierce competition in a niche that Microsoft has no interest in.

    @tom B:
    It is a testament to the stupidity of IT depts. that Office is still a viable product. The FREE OpenOffice is close enough in features that I can’t se sepnding MONEY on Ofiice.

    If you would like to risk your job advocating a costly switchover to software which actually does less than what it replaces and does less in a lesser documented way, by all means, make the case to company executives who could care less about “free software” and would much rather you spend your paid working time solving actual problems.

    Microsoft Office may not be perfect software, but it is a business standard, it works, people know how to use it, it’s supported by Microsoft, and compared to most business software it is really not that expensive.

  9. @brad:
    I consider MS Office 2008 for the Mac to be Microsoft’s answer to Apple Numbers, rather than any sort of serious business offering. The new version is actually really well done – even the beta looks great. And so Microsoft can continue selling it to students and home users, but clip office use by not offering VBA support (which most home users are unlikely to use). It’s really very clever on their part.

  10. I am a developer at the MacBU, but I cannot speak for Microsoft’s official policies. I don’t want to try to speak for Microsoft, MacBU’s management, or anyone but myself.

    I personally know that several of the claims you cite about intentional crippling, time frames, and missing and removed features, are either incorrect or exaggerated. For example, Excel macros are alive and well, and even have a new formula builder for helping people use them. Additionally, I’m helping debug and develop one of the most hotly anticipated features for my team’s app, and I’ve never been given orders to intentionally cripple it. On the contrary, we’re doing our best to take different approaches than before and get the feature to users as soon as possible, regardless of the release schedules for the rest of the MacBU apps.

    I think MacBU could benefit from some more transparency about what we’re up to. Both MacBU and Apple seem to me to act unnecessarily secretive about what we’re up to. (On the other hand, I think other parts of Microsoft are often too loud about what they’re doing, without delivering.) I love my job at MacBU, and I think we’re doing some very interesting work, but it’s very difficult. At times, other internal and external dependencies seem to me to complicate our work beyond anyone’s expectation. I think MacBU management looks much more happy to take the fall for other groups than to pass the buck to these deps.

    Another unfortunate facet of our position (i.e., our time scales, headcount, code base, perceived market, and competitors) is that we can’t address everyone’s needs. Of course we want to — if we address everyone’s needs best of all, we can get their money! And they can use our software! Customers and MacBUers all get what they want! Especially in this last cycle, we had lots of difficult trade-offs to make. Part of trading off is constantly revising whether the tradeoff is the right decision to make, and I think changing circumstances will allow us to revisit some of those tradeoffs.

    Talking isn’t doing. I don’t expect you to be convinced by what I have to say, and every day when I go into the office I’m working to turn what we *have said* into what we *are doing*. I’m sorry if we don’t look like we’re going after your problems, and I can promise you that I don’t have to show your list to MacBU management, devs, testers, and program managers — we’re working on it, and I hope we can soon earn back your patronage.

  11. A MacBU Developer Says:

    For example, Excel macros are alive and well, and even have a new formula builder for helping people use them.

    The entire Mac press is under the impression VBA Macros will no longer be supported in Office 2008. Realizing you can’t say anything official, are you indicating that this is not the case? If so, that’s good news. If Excel Macros are taking the form of Applescripts, that’s a clearly deficient solution that would have been identified as such within seconds of being mentioned at a design/implementation meeting. How will Applescript Macros interact on the Windows version of Office? Will VBA be converted to Applescript and back when opened/saved on the Mac? Seems unlikely.

    I think MacBU could benefit from some more transparency about what we’re up to.


    Another unfortunate facet of our position (i.e., our time scales, headcount, code base, perceived market, and competitors) is that we can’t address everyone’s needs.

    The number of people working in the Microsoft Mac Business Unit is subject to decisions made at levels higher than MacBU management within Microsoft. I don’t think I really need to elaborate on how resource allocation can be used to affect product development one way or another.

    Especially in this last cycle, we had lots of difficult trade-offs to make. Part of trading off is constantly revising whether the tradeoff is the right decision to make, and I think changing circumstances will allow us to revisit some of those tradeoffs.

    Agreed. In any development situation with deadlines tradeoffs are involved. However, if any of those tradeoffs involved any level of reduced interoperability with the Windows version of Office, or reduced the viability of Office:mac in a business setting, they were pretty glaring and motivated tradeoffs to make.

    Also, any word on why iWork imports Office 2007 documents and Office:mac doesn’t?

  12. (Man, these essays have *got* to stop.)

    If I recall correctly, VBA is different from Excel macros/functions/formulas, like countif() and average(). Those functions will continue to be supported, and pains have been taken to ensure that Excel macros from versions as old as Excel 4 (maybe older? I’m not dealing with this particular part of our code) still work. However, as you’ve correctly stated, VBA has been removed from this release. Yes, (in my opinion) this is not the best of all worlds. No, (in my opinion) AppleScript isn’t going to patch the entire problem, especially as regards legacy scripts. We’ve noted elsewhere that our entire automation infrastructure was based on VBA, and we had to move to AppleScript ourselves.

    Imagine if the tradeoff had gone in the opposite direction: Office 12 delayed even further to facilitate Universal VBA macros. (Keep in mind the team had estimated two years to re-write VBA: ) The large part of the population that doesn’t use macros still wants an Intel binary, and they still want to read the new file formats. In the end management apparently decided that those two issues (among others) were more important to address than VBA, and that we could not address them all in a reasonable time frame. Having seen the situation first-hand, I’m inclined to believe them.

    (Aside: Also, I believe you will be able to run the 2004 and 2008 apps side-by-side, so that organizations that are upgrading can use 2004 for VBA programability and 2008 for the new formats. This seems non-optimal, to say, the least. I was not here when that decision was made, and I was not involved in designing/implementing/testing it, so I cannot promise that this is the plan. I spoke with a senior developer who had personally overseen the work necessary to ensure that trick works, but I can’t guarantee anything one way or the other. It seems like the best the guys and gals at the time could do given the situation.)

    I mentioned a series of components to our current state; you focused on headcount. Microsoft has been nothing but helpful in providing us as much money, space, budget for hiring, and equipment as we need. The people problem is not one of missing resources; it seems to me to be one of of an inability to find and train-up talented programmers, even if non-‘Mac people’ are recruited or drafted into MacBU. I personally think that the MacBU products’ deficiencies can be fixed without ballooning headcount, and can’t be fixed by throwing bodies at the problem. I’m encouraged to see well-reasoned changes made internally to how we work, prioritize, and plan — I think that will help more than trying to find more programmers. I think we’re defined by being pulled in contradicting directions: being Mac folks at Microsoft, compatibility vs. Mac-specific work, catering to those on older technologies vs. helping them better use new ones, riffing on the success of WinOffice and OS X vs. the difficulty of making the two sing together. In that situation, all day you’re going to run into nothing *but* tradeoffs. And some of them will be unpleasant in any event.

    I don’t believe I can comment on a large part of the iWork OOXML story without sounding like I’m spreading FUD. Different developers and testers from Apple, outside of my NDAed MacBU interaction with them, have commented about underhanded conduct on Apple’s part in obtaining their converters, but I couldn’t confirm that suspicion, and so I’ll let it be. I will note that the iWork importers are in any case be quicker to market because they are lossy. The OOXML converters are in beta now for Word and Powerpoint, and final OOXML converters for 2004 will ship after 2008 does to make sure we can use the same codebase and make sure OOXML conversion is identical with Office 2008, even if your layout depends on corner-cases and bugs.

    Oh, and regarding A/V chat: Yahoo! Messenger for Mac OS X only does video, not audio. Support for corporate A/V is not an attempt to ‘kneecap’ personal A/V; the corporate A/V client, as I’ve seen/heard, is all sorts of RFC-compliant standards based goodness and light, and the personal A/V solution looks crufty, opaque, and going away. (Corporate uses servers located inside a company’s firewalls; personal relies on public MSN servers.) It makes no sense for the Messenger team to attempt to clear up the cruft, negotiate through the legal issues, and route around the opacity when personal A/V will soon be based on the corporate A/V stack, at which point they’ll be in a much better place to release a personal A/V client. I’ve met few (if any) people online who have made accurate statements about the nature or timing of the personal A/V release for Messenger for Mac.