MS shows corner of Mac Office road map

The company demonstrates a new email client and PIM and discusses plans to bring its wares in line with Apple's next OS
Written by Daniel Turner on

Microsoft's Macintosh Business Unit (MBU) on Thursday took the wraps off forthcoming features and components of the next Macintosh version of Microsoft Office, including a new email client and PIM for the popular Mac productivity suite.

Meanwhile, members of the development team discussed Microsoft's strategy for peaceful coexistence with Apple's next operating system, Mac OS X.

Irving Kwong, product manager for the MBU, emphasized that the new Office remains a "work in progress." Microsoft settled on a name for the product within the past few days -- Microsoft Office 2001 Macintosh Edition -- and Kwong said Microsoft hopes to deliver the new version sometime in the second half of 2000.

While the upgrade to Office will follow Mac OS X's expected summer ship date, it will consist of "Classic" applications. Because the components won't be written to Mac OS X's Carbon application programming interfaces, they will offer only limited access to the advanced, Unix-based underpinnings of the new OS.

Mac OS X is "a moving target," Kwong said, since many of its features are currently in flux. He added that Microsoft continues to work closely with Apple but said the Cupertino, California, company is not finished defining some of the components that will be present in the shipping OS.

"Currently we don't have all of the information we need from Apple in order to Carbonise Office," he said.

However, Kwong said, Microsoft is committed to Mac OS X and plans to develop a native version of Office that will ship after the Classic version, although he declined to specify a release date. A scheme to unify the two versions "depends on how successful Apple is in migrating users to OS X," he said.

Kwong also reiterated Microsoft's commitment to delivering Mac OS X-native versions of its Internet Explorer 5 Web browser and free Outlook Express email client simultaneous with the arrival of Mac OS X.

The twin watchwords of the revamped suite are compatibility and information management, Kwong said.

The new version of Office will be compatible both with Windows versions of Office (including Office 2000) and with legacy applications. For example, he said, users will be able to save and open files transparently across platforms, and the new Office will be able to "downrev save" to Word 5 format.

Kwong also demonstrated a new component of the suite: an integrated e-mail, scheduling and personal information manager (PIM) application. (This application has no official name yet; Kwong laughed that its code name -- Alpaca -- would certainly be changed.)

Whatever its final name, Kwong said this application will form the hub of the new Office suite, acting as a centralised address book and "timekeeper" for all other applications integrated into Office.

He said the new application is being developed by the team that created the Mac version of Outlook Express; Microsoft will continue to offer Outlook Express as a free download.

The new email package maintains the single-window scheme of Outlook Express; mailboxes are listed along the left, current content is displayed in the window's main pane, and a preview area appears below.

The new application will pack calendar and task-management features that will extend into other Office components, such as Microsoft Word and Excel. For example, flagged emails can alert users of a critical event even if they are using other Office applications. The new component will also tap shared dictionaries and databases, Kwong said.

In addition, the new application will have a "link" feature: Other e-mail messages and even files residing anywhere on the host computer can be "linked" to an email.

Kwong gave the example of an email containing a project deadline. He flagged the email with the deadline's date, then linked relevant text and spreadsheet files to the email. These links, he said, do not reside in the email itself, so forwarding or responding will not disclose the content of or information about the files.

The new application will also feature a new address book with color-coded previews, calendar features that can be shared with other users via the iCal standard, support for synching with Palm. organizers, and the ability to save calendar pages to the Web. Action buttons within address-book pages will automate common tasks, such as getting driving directions for a listed address via Microsoft's Expedia Web site or creating a letter in Microsoft Word.

In addition, email composition will include most features long familiar to Word users, including formatting, spell-checking, dictionary and thesaurus access through contextual menus, and auto-correct. The application's auto-fill feature will track the 150 most recent email addresses, even if they haven't been saved in the user's address book.

Kwong also mentioned that Microsoft is "working on something like a Mac Outlook client" that will be cross-platform compatible with the company's Exchange collaboration application. The development of that client is being conducted outside of the Mac group, however, and Kwong said he didn't have details on when the software would be available.

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