"Bill Gates has a soft spot in his heart for the Mac," according to Kevin Browne, general manager of Microsoft's Macintosh Business Unit, who has been discussing Office 2001 for Mac (released tomorrow in the UK), the future of Microsoft Mac products, and the relationship between Microsoft and Apple.

Mac focus Browne (pictured here) has worked for Microsoft for 10 years. He was named head of Microsoft’s Macintosh Business Unit (MacBU) in late 1999. Yesterday at the CompUSA store in San Francisco, Microsoft announced the US availability of Office 2001 for Mac.

"We started the MacBU around the beginning of 1997. For years and years, we’d been developing applications for Windows in tandem with applications for the Mac, all in one big team. What we found over time was that the Windows and Mac platforms were diverging, and we needed to focus on needs that were unique to each.

"For instance, the Mac is not as heavily used in corporate computing. The Mac is used for its excellent graphics and design capabilities, and is growing very popular with consumers. So it made sense for Microsoft to have a business unit that focused on needs unique to the Macintosh user."

Pride not prejudice Browne is pleased with how things have progressed for the MacBU: "We’ve really gone out and done special things that have been recognized. We’ve won the Best-of-Show award at Macworld Expo for five shows in a row! I’m incredibly proud of our unit."

There has been some disappointment among Mac Office users that the new personal-information manager, Entourage, does not have the office-wide capabilities of Microsoft’s Windows-only Outlook (not to be confused with the Outlook Express email client that does ship for the Mac). Browne explained the differences.

"Entourage and Outlook have the same fundamental components. The main difference is that Outlook has the goal of making not only the individual more productive, but the organization more productive as well. Outlook is very tightly integrated with the server. Entourage is laser-focused on making the individual more productive. We looked at the Mac market and saw people working on a fairly individual level. That’s our customer - so we didn’t focus on things like group calendaring. We were extremely focused on the individual when we developed Entourage."

Listen and learn Despite this difference in Microsoft’s focus between its Macintosh and Windows customers, Browne is adamant that the MacBU keeps up to speed on what its Mac customers need.

"We listen to what our customers say. We have a customer panel of about 1,000 Mac users, 500 of whom use Office and 500 who don’t. Both viewpoints are incredibly important to us. We go out on site visits, which helps us get a good picture of how the Mac and our software work together. It’s incredibly gratifying to see fans of Microsoft in the Macintosh space."

Steve and Bill Browne describes the relationship between Microsoft and Apple as "the best it’s ever been".

"Back in 1996, it was said that people from Microsoft and Apple couldn’t talk to one another without having lawyers in the room. Now we all talk directly to answer questions and offer each other suggestions. We’ve all internalized the need to work with Apple, and I’m very pleased with where we are.

"There are 10 million users who rely on the Mac. Our collaboration is about customers. It’s also due in no small part to Steve Jobs’ return to Apple. Bill Gates and he are acquaintances from way back, and Bill Gates has a soft spot in his heart for the Mac."

MS on OS X Finally, Browne discussed what Macintosh users can expect from Microsoft in the future.

"Apple is developing a new operating system – Mac OS X - which it plans to release next year. Our next project is to get our products onto that platform. Internet Explorer will be the default browser on that system. We’ve been working on that for a while, and it looks great. Other than that, we’ll continue working together to service the needs of our customers."