Reality Check: Microsoft Showed Practicality, Compassion for Mac at Apple's Lowest Point

With Apple teetering towards bankruptcy in 1997 and in desperate need of financial aid and help from its partners, top executives at Microsoft reviewed an upcoming version of Mac Office (which eventually shipped as Mac Office 98) and made impassioned pleas for its release, despite Apple's declining market share and falling revenues in Microsoft's Mac Business Unit (MBU). These details came to light in recent court disclosures related to Microsoft's Iowa class action lawsuit. And they paint a decidedly unfamiliar portrait of a corporate super giant who is more infamous for stepping on competitors than aiding them.

Of course, that's not how the Mac community sees things. And it's time for this silliness to stop.

According to Computerworld, these documents have resulted in "yet more criticism of Microsoft's business practices" because they demonstrated that Microsoft "considered abandoning Office for Mac in order to cause 'a great deal of harm' to Apple." That sounds sensational, damning. Let's see what the documents really say.

In a June 1997 email exchange between then-Microsoft CEO Bill Gates and MBU chief Ben Waldman, Gates thanks Waldman for showing "the kind of passion about great products that has made Microsoft successful." "I admit we have neglected the Mac business," Gates wrote. "Although the Mac is declining if we move ahead on this product we should ask for the \[subsidiaries\] with localized product to make a real effort."

If you think Gates come off as a real jerk, consider what he was responding to. Waldman had told Gates previously that the pace of discussions with Apple had frustrated many at the MBU, who were eager to get the next Mac Office out the door. "The threat to cancel Mac Office 97 is certainly the strongest bargaining point we have, as doing so will do a great deal of harm to Apple immediately," Waldman said. "Regardless of the outcome of these discussions, though, I believe we should ship Mac Office \[98\]."

Waldman then describes why, in length, and it's obvious he's quite proud of what the MBU had accomplished with that release. Mac Office 98 was "a good product ... one \[Microsoft\] can feel good about, and that will be well received by customers, press, and analysts" Waldman explained. It included dramatically better performance, "FAR" simpler deployment and maintenance thanks to a drag-and-drop installer, good migration support for Mac Word 5.1 (then considered the last decent Mac version of Word), support for various Mac-specific technologies, integration with Microsoft's Mac-oriented Web browser and email products, and other features. It was, in other words, an exceptional Mac product.

"We are close to shipping," Waldman continued, and "the team is motivated." He noted that previous attempts to cancel Mac Office had had a terrible effect on the MBU, and that canceling it at the time of the email exchange would be "devastating." And while he admitted that a lack of plans for the future created a morale issue, "People are enthusiastic and believe in our vision of creating a great product and making a difference."

As you can see, Waldman, too, comes off as a real jerk. You know, the kind of guy that wants to stick it to the Mac community.

Wait, you didn't get that from the email exchange? Odd. Because every Mac-oriented publication on earth, from what I can tell, has cited this email exchange as an example of Microsoft's ongoing efforts to keep Apple down. Computerworld, for example, also reported that Microsoft was using Mac users as "guinea pigs" to test features that would later appear in Windows versions of Office, as if getting features first were somehow a bad thing. (Microsoft actually promotes these features as its "Mac-First" innovations.) Other publications and Mac news sites played up the threat to shut down Mac Office, which frankly would have made good business sense given that revenues from Mac Office fell from $200 million to $150 million between 1996 and 1997 as Apple teetered toward a bleak finish that, ultimately, never happened.

What did happened is that Microsoft invested $150 million in Apple about six weeks after this email exchange, announced its intention to develop an OS X-based version of Mac Office going forward, and pledged to keep making new Office versions for five more years. Today, Microsoft is working on yet another version of Mac Office that will ship late this year. (And Apple, of course, rebounded, partly because of help from Microsoft and others, partly because of the iMac, and, years later, thanks to the iPod.)

Now, Microsoft's actions on behalf of Apple were somewhat self-serving: As part of wide-ranging set of agreements with the struggling Apple that year, Apple agreed to bundle Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser with Mac OS. And I have little doubt that Microsoft was propping up its sole viable OS competitor during a time in which its antitrust troubles were heating up. But Microsoft is a publicly held company, not a charity: Obviously, it would bargain with other companies as effectively as possible. To not do so would be negligent. To suggest that their actions were anything less than prudent is, therefore, naïve.

More important, we have that email record that everyone is so excited about. What it shows to me is a company dedicated to making great products and, yes, supporting then-struggling Apple with the best version of Office Microsoft had yet created. Don't believe me? You can read it yourself. My guess is you'll come away with a less dramatic version of history than the Mac fanatics are pushing.

Moving Forward with Mac Office 97 (Microsoft email exchange) (PDF format)

Note: I originally credited Macworld as the source of various quotes in this article. In fact, the original report was from Computerworld and Macworld, a sister publication, republished it on their site. I've corrected these references in the above article.

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