As reported in last month’s Macworld (June 2000), Microsoft is readying the next version of its giant Office suite of Mac business programs for release later this year. So far, the company has released details of a new Office application – code-named Alpaca – that aims to act as the personal-information manager (PIM) for consumers and general business users. And there are a further 800-plus new features in Office 2001 for the Mac.

During an exclusive interview with key Microsoft officials on a recent trip to Paris, I was given a demo of the whole new suite and chatted about the company’s current Macintosh strategy.

Details of the 800-plus new features in Office 2001 for the Mac are under a non-disclosure agreement for the time being, but Microsoft officials were keen to promote the new Alpaca parts of Office – as well as give commitments to Apple’s forthcoming next-generation operating system, Mac OS X.

All Mac code Kevin Browne, general manager of the Macintosh Business Unit (pictured here), emphasized the "intense focus" on the Mac of his team of Microsoft employees. Office 2001, for instance, was engineered entirely for the Mac. Microsoft no longer works on a shared "core-code" strategy. What’s written for the Mac applications is written for the Mac alone. However, the engineers’ proximity to their Windows counterparts does allow for near bulletproof cross-platform compatibility.

Although the company has been making Mac products since 1984, Microsoft’s Mac Business Unit (MBU) wasn’t formed until January 1997. Since then, there’s been a $150 million Microsoft investment in Apple, and a patent cross-licence signed between the two companies. Relations between long-term rivals Steve Jobs and Bill Gates certainly seem to have thawed since Jobs’ return to the Apple helm, with Microsoft officials present at many of his Macworld Expo keynote speeches. The MBU has released several award-winning Mac applications, including the acclaimed Office 98 and several versions of the Internet Explorer Web browser and Outlook Express email client.

Mac fantasy island The MBU is "almost like a separate company within Microsoft", according to Browne – even though most of the 200 staff are based at the company’s giant campus in Redmond, near Seattle. Other Mac team members are based at Microsoft's offices in Silicon Valley, Ireland and regional offices located throughout the world, including the UK.

"Being a totally separate section, we’re not constrained to make sure the Windows version looks better than the Mac. In fact, it’s quite the opposite – we believe our Mac products are better than Microsoft’s Windows’ applications!" claims Browne.

"We have to innovate and surpass our Mac customers’ expectations," he adds – pointing to Office 98’s first-time drag-&-drop installation. "Internet Explorer 5 on the Mac has lots and lots of features that you won’t find in the Windows version. It has the best standards support of any browser on any platform," he claims.

Software priorities For Office 2001, as for all its Mac apps, Microsoft identified three main principals in its software design.

First is to make the product "as Mac-like as possible" while keeping interoperability with the Windows platform at the highest level. Second, Microsoft wants Office 2001 to make its Mac customers even more productive – mainly through Alpaca’s PIM functionality being supported all the way through Office’s other applications (Word, Excel and PowerPoint).

And, third, Browne is keen to further simplify Microsoft’s Mac products without losing any of their functionality.
These design goals are consistent with Microsoft’s renewed focus on Mac consumers and small-business users, while keeping to Office’s large-organization mandate. Browne believes that Microsoft has to take a "very broad approach" when writing programs for Macintosh users. The iMac has galvanized a new generation of Mac customers, to add to Apple’s traditionally strong publishing and educational markets.

Alpaca packs punch Browne says that the original ideas for Alpaca’s PIM functionality came about because "iMacs are about communicating with people". Microsoft is determined that Office 2001 will centralize users’ personal information – building on the features of Outlook Express 5.0. In effect, Alpaca becomes OE5 on steroids, controlling an advanced Address Book and calendar. OE5’s auto-complete functions are beefed up with Alpaca caching your last 150 email recipients for speedier auto-completion of names and email addresses. Users frustrated by the often-different rules for Word 98 and OE5 will be delighted that, in Office 2001, things happen the same way in Word 2001 as they do in Alpaca.

Users can customize Alpaca’s email views. For example, all the email items you received today can be seen at once, as could anything to do with a particular meeting or project. These functions can be colour labelled into easy-to-use, repeatable categories. You will also be able to synchronize your PIM info with Palm Organizer. Microsoft hasn’t yet settled on a formal name for the Alpaca applications.

Bill and the MBU While Browne and his MBU are clearly focusing on their Mac customers’ needs, I was curious to find out how much input comes from Microsoft’s Chief technology Officer, Bill Gates himself.
"Bill loves the Mac," answers Browne. "He encourages us to build the right products for the Mac, and points out when we don’t design them right."

"He provides the encouragement and roadmap, while we design and create the products to address his high-level guidance."

"Bill loves innovation on any platform," continues Browne, " and he’s certainly enjoying the work we’re doing right now".

Browne is particularly proud that he’s getting compliments from Office’s Windows software engineers – the forthcoming Mac version innovates in so many different areas.

Thinking different "Even our Office 2001 marketing will be completely different," said Mary Rose Becker, group product manager for the MBU. "The Mac Unit has its own dedicated marketing team that focuses solely on the Mac customer, instead of both Windows and Mac customers being lumped together like many companies do."

"When I started this job, I was very keen that what the Mac Unit does is a business – not a cause or a crusade. And the Mac market is a very good business for Microsoft".

Mac revenues are one big reason why the MBU is gearing up Carbonized versions of Internet Explorer and Outlook Express for the eventual release of Mac OS X next January. Browne says that his team is working "very closely" with Apple on OS X. 35 Microsoft engineers attended Apple’s recent Worldwide Developers Conference, and Browne promises that "our level of involvement is increasing".
Microsoft’s Mac Business Unit is investing in specifically Mac innovations – in an area that Apple needs to have a strong presence.

Perhaps the fervour of Browne, Becker and the whole MBU will help further cool any historical animosity between the two companies while keeping the fight between the two platforms as hot as ever.