MS' Mac boss weighs Apple moves

Kevin Browne talked about Microsoft's plans for a Mac OS X version of Office and offered his take on Apple's latest announcements.

SAN FRANCISCO--While Microsoft Corp. has frequently been cast in the role of Apple Computer Inc.'s archrival, its productivity applications remain vital to the Mac platform -- and a lucrative business for Microsoft itself.

After describing his company's plans to bring its Office suite to Apple's next-generation Mac OS X during a speech at Macworld Expo here, Kevin Browne, manager of Microsoft's (msft) Macintosh Business Unit, discussed the past, present, and future of the company's Mac operation with ZDNet News.

Q: What was your first impression of Apple CEO Steve Jobs' Expo keynote presentation?

A: My impression overall: he came in under a lot of pressure. Obviously, the last quarter has been pretty tough on Apple (aapl). I think he was under a lot of pressure to deliver, and I think he did. I think he hit a home run!

He needed to do a couple of things: to assure people that Apple had a long-term strategy and to assure people that they understand what it is that is exciting to people about their products.

Q: So what did you think was the most exciting product Apple introduced?

A: The two things I was most excited about were the introduction of the SuperDrive [which can read and write CDs and DVDs] on the G4 Power Macs and then the new PowerBook G4 Titanium.

Because I'm a Microsoft manager and I also work on the Mac, I commonly have to carry two laptops with me -- a Mac and a PC. The Mac is sometimes my business machine and sometimes my demo machine, but I always have to have my PC with me to run internal apps that we use. The current PowerBooks are great and powerful, but they are really heavy so I'm looking forward to getting my hands on a lighter, Titanium PowerBook G4.

Q: At your keynote speech, you made a comment that you weren't really happy with Version 4.2 of Office for the Mac. Why was that?

A:Office 4.2 was just not the kind of effort that Microsoft can put out. Office 4.2 was the result of an organizational structure where a single team was asked to be experts at developing Windows software and Macintosh software. And what was happening to us at the time was, because the Windows Office business was so much bigger than the Mac Office busness, the team made tradeoffs when it came to the Mac software.

We talk about it in terms of the quote, "Those who don't remember history are doomed to repeat it." We never let ourselves forget the mistakes we made in the past because we want to be cogniscent of what has made us successful. Now doing things with this different approach -- with this Mac Business Unit -- has led to things like Office 98, Internet Explorer 5, and Office 2001, that we think really reflect Mac user needs and are in themselves great Macintosh products.

Q: So how about Office 2001? How is it doing?

A: Office 2001 is doing incredible. We announced some numbers this morning. We have the product available in six languages; we sold over a quarter of a million copies in the first 45 days of availability; and we are seeing very strong business in Europe, the United States, and Japan.

Q: What parts of Europe?

A: We sell throughout Europe, but the languages we specifically support are French, German, Swedish, and Spanish.

Q: Did you get feedback from Apple about Office 2001?

A: We had a lot of feedback and we worked very closely on Office 2001. All the way from the very beginnings where we tried to asses the right strategy to take, we talked to them about what "Maclike" means and learned a lot from Apple about defining a Maclike product.

When we decided to introduce this product at Macworld [Expo/New York] in July 2000, Steve Jobs invited us to participate in his keynote, and he actually helped us launch the product to the Macintosh community. We very much appreciate it.

When we went over to Europe for Apple Expo in Paris 2000 in September, he extended the same invitation and we actually demonstrated the French and German version of Office 2001 there. So we had a lot of help from Apple in shipping the product as well.

Q: So when did the relationship start when it came time to work on Mac OS X?

A: We had been talking to Apple about Mac OS X for almost three years. I mean certainly before they set out on the strategy to build Mac OS X they checked with all their large developers, like Microsoft, Adobe, Macromedia, and so forth, to assess our needs.

And we think they have been tremendously responsive to the needs that we have. The challenge of bringing Office to Mac OS X was that we had over 25 million lines of existing code running on today's Mac OS. And we need to bring that over and deliver everything that we've done before and enhance that as well to take advantage of Mac OS X.

So over the last three years, we worked with them to develop our understanding of what OS X should be. And I think we are at a place now where since the release of Office 2001, we have been actually able to get busy and start working. You saw this morning that we actually had some results to show. So far, so good. It's a lot of work, and there is a lot left that we want to do to the product.

Q: How many developers do you have working on this?

A: We had about 200 people in our Macintosh business unit,m split between code writers and testers and so forth.

Q: What has been the biggest problem you have had so far while working on Mac OS X?

A: The biggest problem we've had so far: the combination of the set of requirements that we have, the set of requirements that Apple has, the set of requirements that our tool manufacturer has (Metrowerks CodeWarrior). … We're all still assessing what we need to do in tandem to some extent and implementing those things, so it requires very, very strong communication links in order to prevent one person in one of the areas disrupting the work of the other person in the other areas.

So really it's just been that we all have been trying to some extent to keep building in tandem.

Q: Was there any area that was hard to incorporate into the Mac OS X application?

A: Not really, that I can speak of. I'm not one of the code writers, and they might have stories about some of the things. I think that the work that we have done to date is no harder than the work that we have left to do.

So then maybe we will run into one particular area where we just have a tough time. But so far, aside from the fact that we're working on a operating system that is still being built and working with tools that are still being developed, we are in the process of getting people to know the right people on each side, so that we can minimize the disruption. There is going to be disruption any time you do this.

Q: You stated that you will have the version ready early in the fall. Is that only in the United States, or does that include Europe?

A: We attempted to create a worldwide product that is localized and we have a very efficient and fast localization process. With Office 2001, which we released last fall, we had all of our international versions out within a month of the release of Office 2001 in the U.S. I don't foresee any problems in meeting that fall date for all of our languages.

Q: So what do you personally think about Mac OS X?

A: What do I think about it personally? When I first saw Aqua a year ago, I said, "That's what we have been thinking computers should look like in the year 2000." And I think to the extent that Apple and all of its ISVs are able to imbue their products with that kind of design esthetic that only the Aqua designers can bring to their design, it will bring that promise.

It isn't just Apple, it's all of us that have to deliver the right sets of things for OS X. To be sure, there are some changes from today's Mac OS, and maybe it's just a process of adjustment or a process of Apple continuing to build in more things that make today's Mac successful.

But I am sort of reserving judgment until I see the final product. I love the elegance and the efficiency of the current Mac OS, and I think Apple still has a little challenge left to mask the complexity of the underlying, sophisticated operating system with the same ease they have in today's Mac OS.

That's a diplomatic answer. I am reservedly optimistic that they'll do it because we've seen progress from the initial releases to the public beta and then to the releases we have seen here at the show. I think Apple has been very responsive to customer feedback.

Q: Is there going to be a Media Player for Mac OS X?

A: There is a Windows Media Player beta out right now. Another team outside my business unit is doing that work. I'm not sure what their plans are exactly for the final.

Q: Do you know anything about FrontPage?

A: There is a Version 1.0 for the Macintosh. My understanding is there are no plans to update that. The 1.0 version went out there; they had some success, but it was't overwhelming. Now with Adobe owning GoLive and Macromedia owning Dreamweaver -- they are enormous competitors, they have terrific Macintosh products. I think with the FrontPage guys … I'm not sure if they see it as a great opportunity with the market so divided already into two very strong competitors.

A: Microsoft recently bought game developer Bungie Software. What can you tell me about Halo?

Q: Actually Microsoft retained control of Halo and Halo will be released, as I think we've announced, on all three platforms: the X-Box, the PC, and the Mac.

Q: Are you going to have any games for the Mac this year?

A: Well, we work closely with the popular gaming companies, such as Aspyr and MacSoft . As part of the announcement that we have made, with Apple at Macworld/New York, there is another gaming company that is being formed in order to field some of these games.

I talked to the principal of that company. He is almost ready to begin detailing plans but wasn't quite ready just yet. I would have very much like to have included him in [Microsoft's announcement at Macworld Expo/San Francisco], but he asked just for a little more time to have his feet under him and to have his plans fleshed out before revealing his plans publicly.

Q: Will Microsoft release any additional hardware for the Mac?

A: I think our group's responsibility there is to provide great drivers in conjunction with the hardware group. We intend that all pointing devices and keyboards that come out of our hardware group will be compatible with Mac and will be very, very useful for the Mac. Beyond that, I'm not sure what else there is to announce.

If you walk by in the gaming pavilion, you will see a company there that is using Sidewinder devices with the Macs. You just hook up the joysticks and it works. But it isn't something we talk about because we are more of a productivity-oriented hardware business.