Better living without MS Office

Ten years ago, Apple called a truce in its market share war with Microsoft. But Apple's new Numbers spreadsheet and the support for Tracking Changes in the updated Pages are huge for those who want to do without MS Office.
Written by David Morgenstern, Contributor

Ten years ago to this very week, Apple called a truce in its market share war with Microsoft. After all, the Mac then had a 5 percent market share or so and the company and its OS plans were in disarray.

But the cold war continues and the new iWork '08 is Cupertino's latest shot at MS Office. The support for Tracking Changes in the updated Pages will make a big difference for pro users and switchers.

Back in the summer of 1997, the Mac market had two big annual shows, a Macworld Expo in January (which we still celebrate) and the other in Boston. Steve Jobs was shaking things up inside the company and outside with its developers and partners.

At the Expo keynote, Jobs told the audience that the "era of competition between Apple and Microsoft is over." He then announced a patent sharing deal between the companies.

"Apple lives in an ecosystem. And it needs help from other partners; it needs to help other partners. Relationships that are destructive don't help anybody in this industry as it is today. During the last several weeks, we've looked at relationships. One [relationship] stood out as one that hasn't been going so well, but has the potential to be great for both companies: Microsoft," Jobs said that day.

Of course, this news was greeted by boos from the crowd of Mac faithful. Really, it was almost a riot in some parts of the armory hall. You can view the moment on YouTube.

While I was (and continue to be) a Mac partisan, I didn't join in the catcalls. Jobs was making sense. Finally, here was an Apple executive who was facing the market facts.

Then Bill Gates appeared on a huge overhead projection and made his own set of promises. First, was an investment of $150 million in Apple stock. For a reason I've never fully understood, this pitiful gesture reassured the Street and caused the stock price to rise from $19 to $26 following the keynote.

But the most important announcement of the hour — the one vital to the millions of users who used the Mac every day to get their work done — was Microsoft's pledge to keep developing Microsoft Office for the Mac.

Worry over MS Office was a concern expressed then by the professional Mac community on the pages of MacWEEK where I worked as a senior editor. MS Word and Excel were used in all professional content workflows and Mac businesses. And in academia and government. And everywhere else. They were critical applications

In addition, Gates said the new version of Office would be real Mac program and not just a port of the Windows version.

Back then, this was all welcome news.

Today, however, this worry about Office seems to be fading. Many users can find acceptable substitutes for Office. Or they can purchase superior programs that still offer enough Office compatibility to get by.

And Microsoft has dropped the ball on its expected upgrade cycle. Office 2008 for the Mac is now expected in January 2008, the Mac Business Unit recently explained.

For example, Keynote continues to be the best presentation tool on the market. It's been that way since its introduction and the update in iWork '08 just continues its progress. I was impressed with a demonstration following the iMac introduction earlier this week. And it reads and writes PowerPoint files.

I use an excellent Mac word processor from RedleX called Mellel. This program is great for long documents, encourages the use of styles (a good thing) and provides excellent support for Unicode right-left word processing, something I do often.

However, its Word compatibility is limited to RTF. And I admit that at times I am forced to go back to Word because documents I receive include tracking history.

So, I was very glad to see support for Tracking Changes in the new Pages. This feature adds a lot of value to iWork.

Looking at the iWork applications, they appear to start conceptually with the rich, finished document and then work backwards toward the data entry and construction. It seems to me that most productivity applications start with the data and data entry and then suddenly discover that we want to print highly formatted documents.

Pages recognizes that customers want to create polished documents with images, 2D graphics and flexible typography; and then it presents the combination of easy templates, tools and content integration that make it easy for the ordinary users to accomplish.

This is also well expressed in Apple's Numbers. The grid and formulas are always present, but the primary goal in this spreadsheet is helping users understand the data they are manipulating and then communicate this data in some kind of output.

At the introduction event, I spoke with Alan Eyzaguirre, iWork product manager, and asked him about the UI. He said the evolution of these tools followed the media-centric focus of iLife and OS X. Even though they are productive apps, they were built "for a media age."

This isn't to say that easy isn't also powerful.

"You launch the app and [the average user] should just be able to use it. But we also have all these pros. For them, a click on the Inspector opens up all these controls they need for their documents," Eyzaguirre said.

This has been the Mac paradigm from the beginning, yet the result still seems fresh. Some things haven't changed in 10 or 20 years.

A Historical Note: Here's a funny sidelight that was told by my late MacWEEK colleague Don Crabb about the infamous Jobs and Gates address. He said the dialog between them was fake and done via a packaged video tape. It fooled me at the time.

"One last note: Bill Gates, whose 25-foot-high video image filled the Castle midway through the Jobs keynote to bless the Apple/Microsoft agreement, was not live, not on satellite. He was, dear friends, on a videotape. It was a good tape, and it was made to look like Bill was just then "calling in." But it was still just a tape, all the 'gee whiz' aside. The lack of a downlink dish ought to have given it away! Still, it was a nice touch ... A nice bit of PR spin," Crabb wrote in MacWEEK back in 1997.

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