Microsoft plans to offer a modest update to its Mac OS X version of Office in late May or early June, but the company is not saying when it will solve one major shortcoming in its OS X offering: the lack of an e-mail program that can directly share data with a Microsoft Exchange server.
The issue is not just critical to Microsoft, but also to Apple Computer, which is trying to pitch OS X as ready for prime time, even as programs from various third parties have yet to be optimised for the operating system.
Because the Entourage e-mail and calendaring program in Microsoft Office v.X does not talk directly to the Exchange server, Mac owners can get their e-mail, but not manage tasks such as group calendaring.
To get those features, people can use Outlook 2001, a Mac OS 9 program that already talks to an Exchange server and can run in Mac OS X's classic mode. However, running in classic mode means dealing with slower performance and forgoing the new operating system's interface and improved stability.
"Exchange support is important," said Phil Schiller, Apple's vice president of worldwide marketing.
Although the spring update won't tackle that problem, the free download will offer more than 1,000 bug fixes and other tweaks as well as a couple of new features such as improved text rendering. Around the same time, Microsoft also plans to release software that will allow Office to synch directly to a Palm handheld and a new version of its MSN Messenger instant messaging program.
The next major release of Office for the Mac is likely to be anywhere from a year to 18 months away, according to information Microsoft presented Wednesday at a meeting at its offices in Silicon Valley. Kevin Browne, head of Microsoft's Macintosh Business Unit, would not definitively say whether that version of Office would include an e-mail program that can directly talk to an Exchange server.
At the event, which was part of an ongoing lecture series, Microsoft reiterated its support for the Mac but said its efforts are primarily focused on delivering Office and Internet Explorer. Other programs are being considered only if they won't tie up too many resources. Microsoft is also committing only to developing Mac versions one upgrade at a time.
The announcements come as Microsoft's five-year technology deal with Apple comes to an end. Under the deal, Microsoft was required to keep developing Office and Internet Explorer for the Mac. Microsoft and Apple have said they are not in talks on a new deal, with Microsoft saying it will develop Mac products as long as it makes good business sense.
Browne said solving the Exchange issue is a priority, but said the software maker is still deciding how it wants to address the issue.
Basically, there are two options, he said. As one option, Microsoft could update Outlook 2001 for the Mac. However, because of the way that program was pieced together, Browne said there are significant challenges to optimizing it to take advantage of Mac OS X's new features.
The other option is to build Exchange support into Entourage. That, too, has its challenges, he said.
Browne said Microsoft has surveyed customers and said the company is still trying to figure out both a long-term solution and a more intermediate-term fix for the problem. He did not provide a time frame for when Microsoft might have something ready, but he estimated that he spends a third of his time trying to solve the Exchange problem.
Browne said he checks his e-mail in Entourage and then runs Outlook 2001 when he needs calendar information. That two-program solution is acceptable to Browne, but he understands not everyone agrees.
"Most of our customers tell us it's not," he said.
David Bailey, an analyst at Wall Street brokerage Gerard Klauer Mattison, said that the Exchange issue likely doesn't affect most of today's Mac users, but could hurt the company's growth prospects.
"It really only applies to the small-business market or departments within larger corporations," Bailey said. "But for those users it's extremely important."
Bailey said lack of Exchange compatibility could also hurt Apple's ability to increase its larger-business sales.
Microsoft said it plans to bring some of its .Net Web services to the Mac, but said it doesn't plan to open up .Net on the Mac in the same ways it is for Windows. Although Microsoft plans in its Mac products to support some services, such as an e-wallet and online storage of personal information, it is not recruiting other software makers to include .Net tools in their Mac products.
In addition, Microsoft said all of its future Macintosh development is focused on Mac OS X.
"If Apple is making its bet on Mac OS X, we should too," Browne said.
As for Microsoft's sales, Browne said that he knows how many copies of Office v.X have sold, but said he is not ready to release the figures. Browne did say that the program has sold well in Apple's retail stores, but sales overseas have lagged.
"Things in Japan and Europe are a little softer than we had hoped," Browne said.