Is Microsoft Office still a make-or-break suite for the Mac?

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Microsoft’s Office suite of productivity apps was deemed so vital to the survival of the Mac back in 1997 that the returning Steve Jobs felt obliged to cut a deal with Bill Gates to make Microsoft’s Internet Explorer the Mac OS default Web browser in return for a five-year pledge of continued Office support on the Mac, displacing Firefox ancestor Netscape Navigator. Apple had no Web browser of its own in those days, and at the time, a large proportion of Mac-users (and virtually all enterprise Mac-users) couldn’t conceive of being able to go off Office cold-turkey.

Not me. Formerly a heavy-user of MS Word, I had switched to the more text-editor oriented Nisus Writer by ’97 (still available as Nisus Writer Pro) on my way to eventually settling on the styled text editor Tex Edit Plus, which remains my principal text-crunching application today. But I wasn’t typical, and in any event was an erstwhile Word user, with Excel and PowerPoint mainly serving as occasional document openers for files that came my way from other users. A lot of folks back then, especially business and institutional users, would have been seriously deterred from using Macs had Office support been terminated.

But that was then, and this is now. The overall picture and context have changed substantially in the past 15 years. For one thing, Apple now not only has a browser of its own (and Internet Explorer hasn’t supported the Mac for years), but there is also Apple’s in-house and relatively inexpensive iWork suite of productivity apps: Pages, Numbers, and Keynote (which also has companion apps for iOS, which MS Office doesn’t). There are also Open Source alternatives like OpenOffice and my personal fave when I need Office compatibility: LibreOffice. Not to mention:

Consequently, there is a large and growing cohort of Apple users who probably have been only vaguely aware, if aware at all, that Microsoft never followed through on its promise to upgrade Office for full OS X 10.7 Lion compatibility, and has made no undertaking with regards to supporting OS X v10.8 Mountain Lion. This week, Microsoft indicated they’re in no hurry to address reports that MS Office apps look like “crap” on Apple’s new MacBook Pros with Retina Display.

I was unconvinced that there was much likelihood of Microsoft discontinuing support for Office on the Mac back in ’97, and I still am. MS has made a ton of money selling Mac software, and I expect they will eventually get around to releasing a version of Office upgraded to support Retina displays and whatever the current version of OS X is at the time. For the moment, I expect they have their hands full getting Windows 8 shipshape for consumer launch in a couple of months.

There have also been persistent rumors that Microsoft is working on an iOS port of Office apps. I wouldn’t doubt the Microsoft Mac Business Unit at least has some Office for iOS prototypes roughed out, but I’m inclined to think MS will want to give its new Surface tablet PCs and Windows 8 tablets from its PC vendor partners all the competitive edge it can, so while there will definitely be a pared-down version of Office for Windows 8 RT devices, and the full desktop version of Windows will be supported by the Surface Pro model tablet PC, I wouldn’t suggest holding your breath in anticipation of an Office for iOS release anytime soon.

But does it really matter that much? I suppose some folks will continue to cling to the view that Microsoft Office support is a non-optional prerequisite for any hardware platform to have credibility in enterprise usage, but I think that, objectively, that construct doesn’t stand up so well any more. Office will no doubt remain the enterprise/institutional standard, but Office Word file format capability in iWork and third-party alternatives is generally good enough to work with, save for relatively rare instances where 100% formatting compatibility with an original Word document is absolutely required.

I don’t have the frame of reference to really speak to Excel and PowerPoint file compatibility, and I suspect those categories may present more issues, but for a large proportion of Mac users Microsoft Office is no longer the “killer app” it once was perceived to be, and I suspect that few users would miss it as much as they may imagine they would.

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  • DaSch

    I think you missed one thing. Using Office in business is not only about compatibility. With more and more people using SharePoint there is no alternative to Office if you want something that works together.
    The other point is, that many of the Alternatives to MS Office does not have many features that are importanz in business enviorment. Even if the features are available they are extremly hard to use (seen this hundrets of times with Open/LibreOffice).