Microsoft expects Apple's Mac unit sales to rise over the next two to three years, a senior executive told Macworld.

Microsoft's group marketing manager for home and retail products, Jonathan Hulse, said: "We anticipate a growth in Mac sales over the next two to three years."

He clarified that this means Microsoft expects Apple's market share to increase, but said: "We don't expect a huge resurgence to the market share (Apple) had in the eighties, but we see the platform as heading in a positive direction."

Hulse said: "We see the Mac productivity software market growing. Our research shows that half of Mac users use Office, sometimes three or four times a day. We know Mac users depend on Office, and that's how we justify the major investment we are making in the product."

With this in mind, Microsoft announced its plans to release Office 2004 for Mac and Virtual PC for Mac Version 7 in the first half of 2004 at Macworld Expo last month.

The company confirmed that the focus for the next-generation of the world's most-used productivity suite for Mac is sharing, creating and managing projects.

"Microsoft remains as dedicated as ever to the Mac, and plans to show that with Mac Office 2004. After all, the first ever version of Office was launched in 1989 – before the Windows version," said Hulse.

In 1984, Microsoft's Bill Gates said: "The Mac is the only microcomputer beside the IBM PC worth writing software for." Gates then developed Word and Excel for the Mac.

Hulse said: "We spoke to 5,000 Mac users in different fields to find out what customers need from Office; Microsoft is keen to understand user need."

He stressed that Microsoft's aim is to deliver the "best possible user experience" for the forthcoming release. "We'll be working with Apple to deliver the best possible user experience within the product," he said.

Virtual PC

Development also continues for a new version of Virtual PC (acquired by Microsoft from original developer Connectix last year), which it plans to release in the first half of 2004.

This version will overcome the G5 processor incompatibility the product faces today, and will incorporate speed hikes and other improvements, he suggested.

Former Connectix developer and now Microsoft Mac developer Jake Hoelter said: "Mac users are going to love what they see in Virtual PC 7 – performance and usability improvements, as well as compatibility with the G5."

Any customer who acquires Office v. X for Mac from January 6, 2004 until 30 days after the availability of Office 2004 for Mac can obtain the new product at no charge other then shipping and handling.

There will be three versions of Office 2004 for Mac:

Microsoft Office 2004 for Mac Standard Edition. This includes Word 2004, Excel 2004, PowerPoint 2004, Entourage 2004 and MSN Messenger Version 4.0.

Microsoft Office 2004 for Mac Student and Teacher Edition. This is the same offering as Standard Edition, but is available for a discounted price for qualified students and teachers.

Microsoft Office 2004 for Mac Professional Edition. This is the same offering as Standard Edition, but also includes Microsoft Virtual PC for Mac Version 7 with Windows XP Professional.