Office v. X for Mac OS X, Part One

Microsoft's fall 2001 release of Office v. X for Mac OS X was a watershed release for Apple's fledgling platform. The release not only instantly legitimized Mac OS X as a viable product for end users but also legitimized its underlying technologies, such as its Quartz rendering engine and Aqua UI. And Office v. X is available only for Mac OS X (version 10.1 or higher), a bold move given that OS's minute sales and market share. But like Apple itself, Microsoft's Mac Business Unit (MBU) is making a big bet that Mac OS X will be successful. Not coincidentally, if that success materializes, this excellent office suite will be largely responsible.

Functionally, Office v. X is roughly equivalent to Office 2000—rather than Office XP—on the PC. The suite features four main components, including the familiar Word, Excel, and PowerPoint applications, as well as a personal information manager (PIM) and Internet email client called Entourage that first debuted in Office 2001 for the Macintosh (Mac:Office 2001). Microsoft has heavily updated Entourage for this release, however, and despite some surface similarities with the PC-based Outlook product, Entourage isn't targeted at the same business market as the PC-based Outlook.

Aesthetically, the Office v. X applications are Aqua poster boys. They take advantage of every possible Aqua UI widget and convention, from the blue jewel-style buttons and sliders to the unique sheets feature, which replaces document-oriented dialog boxes in OS X. Microsoft worked for months just to update all its icons, dialog boxes, and other on-screen elements for the new system, and as a result, most of the applications (again, with the exception of Entourage) don't represent much of a change over their Mac:Office 2001 equivalents. But porting Classic Mac applications to Mac OS X isn't a trivial task in the best of conditions, and Office is one of the largest software products ever produced for that platform. So, I think we can cut Microsoft some slack in the new-features department.

That isn't to say that the suite doesn't have any new features. Office v. X includes a far more stable foundation, thanks to the underlying technologies in Mac OS X. The suite includes a new Office Address Book that far outstrips the bare-bones version in the base OS and a new Office Notifications feature that brings Office v. X into the Windows .NET fold with calendar events, tasks, and even .NET Alerts—all integrated into a single dialog box that appears above other windows and ensures that you'll be properly alerted. When you start Office v. X, an optional new Project Gallery, similar to the front ends in other consumer-oriented applications such as Apple Works, lets you choose from pre-made templates for document types such as resumes and calendars.

Office v. X's most obvious visual difference is its new Formatting Palette, which floats next to document windows in most Office v. X applications. This palette, which resembles Adobe Photoshop's tool box, provides a centralized location for context-sensitive formatting options, and because it's always available, you don't need to hunt and peck for features. It works well.

Office v. X also includes a few features that first popped up in Office XP on the PC, although it lacks the most important features, such as Task Panes and Smart Tags. Multiselection is finally available (although only in Word X), as is Clear Formatting (again, only in Word). However, some Task Pane functionality is available through other Office v. X features, such as the Formatting Palette and the Project Gallery. Microsoft tells me that its goal for this release wasn't to copy a specific Windows version of Office but rather to create a suite that meets the Mac-specific needs of its users. That's a laudable goal, and I think the company was successful.

Other new features: PowerPoint X includes a cool feature that lets you export PowerPoint slide shows as QuickTime movies so that all users can view your presentations, even if they don't own Office, a feature that the Windows version of PowerPoint recently aped with the Producer add-on. And Microsoft has extensively redesigned Entourage X, as noted above. I'll extensively cover this application—and the other Office v. X applications—in part two of this review, which will be available soon.

Office v. X requires Mac OS X 10.1 or higher, a Mac G3 or better hardware platform, and 128MB of RAM; I recommend 256MB of RAM or more. The suite is available for about $500, although existing Mac:Office customers can upgrade for about $300. (Individual Office v. X applications are available for $150.) I strongly recommend Office v. X to all Mac OS X users; it's fully compatible, document-wise, with Office on the PC, a crucial feature for cross-platform work, and it takes advantage of the underlying technology in OS X in ways that other software makers have yet to duplicate. Office v. X is easily the best-looking Office suite on any platform and a must-have product. Who would have thought that Microsoft would create such a product on a non-Windows OS?

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