MS Office 2008 SP2: The Upgrade Tango

Sections: Business / Office Suites, Mac Software, Macintosh/Apple Hardware, Originals, Software

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Sad Mac Office Upgrade

Or, “When Things Fall Apart.” And boy can things fall apart when you install the SP2/12.2.0 upgrade to Office for Mac 2008. To begin with, unless you absolutely have to upgrade, it is definitely a good idea to wait. There are some serious issues here, which Microsoft will hopefully address soon—showstopper issues that can create significant headaches for Office users. Everybody got their dancing shoes on? Good, let’s begin the tango with a look at some of what this service pack contains.

One step forward: Entourage and MobileMe

Microsoft has finally made Entourage easier to setup for non-Exchange accounts. Previous versions worked with MobileMe, but it was a manual process to configure server settings. Most people are frustrated when they have to dig through a knowledge base, then type and, pray that they typed it correctly, curse when they discover a misspelling…you get the idea. Apple made email account configuration on the iPhone almost criminally simple, so it is refreshing to see Microsoft following suit here. The setup process is so easy, starting with your email address:

Entourage Account Setup Assistant

Entourage then grabs your remaining information, and asks for verification and password. At this point, you’re just a few clicks away from seeing your mail in Entourage:

Entourage Account Details

Two small points in the slightly irritating category: 1.) There were a few folders which did not show up in my folder list until I manually double clicked them (there is a slight difference in icons, but as is often the case with MS, the meaning of these icons is unclear):

Entourage Folders

2.) There is no integration with synched MobileMe calendars. I do love iCal, but having a desktop version of the iPhone (where I can see all my calendars and inboxes) would be great.

Two steps back: Word, etc.

The remaining programs in the Office suite (including one new addition, the Microsoft Document Connection) have all gotten some much needed bug fixes and application enhancements. All the programs load faster and handle text better (huzzah), but frequently refuse to open files that their non-upgraded counterparts created just a few days ago (not huzzah…on an epic scale). In addition, PowerPoint gets some animation upgrades that bring it a few steps closer to Keynote’s power (though it still lacks polish), and all other programs get some display and stability fixes (no standouts, but overall crashing is reduced).

The OOXML is an ISO-approved standard document format, submitted by Microsoft and now available to any program to save files using the .docx, .xlsx, or .pptx formats. Advantage: anybody can use any program to write a letter, and all programs supporting the ISO standard can open, edit, and resave that document. Disadvantage: Microsoft does not have direct control of this standard, so there may be times when the standard and programs using it are out of sync with capabilities found in Office. Or so the story goes.

Opening an Excel expense report template after the upgrade brought about this alarming error message (note that this file was just created on Saturday, July 18. Using Excel 2008):

Excel Error

Visiting Microsoft’s website leads to this article, with one particular gem of confounding wisdom:

Microsoft Office 2008 for Mac Service Pack 2 (SP2) has implemented many of the requirements of the ISO/IEC 29500 standard to make it compatible with the next release of Office for Mac. However, Office 2008 programs may not read all OOXML files that use the ISO standard.

But the expense report wasn’t created as an OOXML files using the ISO standard! It was created using what Office had implemented as of last saturday. So where’s my workbook?! Firing it up in Office 2004 did little to help; luckily a standby copy of Apple’s Numbers allowed recovery of the data (the formatting was lost, but is easily reproducible). This would be an acceptable issue if the file came from Open Office or some other program, but there is no excuse for breaking document compatibility between upgrades like this. In unscientific testing, all .xlsx files and a majority of .docx files suffered this issue (.pptx, oddly enough, worked just fine, though Googling a bit uncovered other users who are not so lucky). 12.2.1 better roll around very soon and fix this—let’s hope the MacBU is paying attention to the bloggers!

Someday We’ll Find It: The Document Connection

For those people using Office in a corporate setting, there is a good chance you’ve encountered Microsoft SharePoint (a web-based document and team collaboration tool that Microsoft is currently putting a great deal of effort behind). Being web-based, it has always been “accessible” to anybody; in reality, non-IE users (Firefox on Windows and anything on a Mac) were second class citizens in the SharePoint world. Certain features, like checking out documents and checking them back in with changes were streamlined for IE users and frustratingly cumbersome for the rest of us. Supposedly, the Document Connection (a new, standalone Office for Mac app) changes all that, by providing a customized interface for Mac users to interact with content in Document Libraries (Lists function appropriately for Safari users). Note the different icons indicating a document library and subsites:

Doc Center Main Window

Simply provide your SharePoint site address and credentials, and the Document Center forges the connection:

Doc Center Config

Yeah, right. If your SharePoint site requires login via an ISA (Microsoft Internet Security and Acceleration Server), the Document Center can not properly authenticate you, unless you know your Kerberos authentication details. Since most users are not privy to such information, no access for you. If your site is publicly available without ISA or VPN access required, you do get to the screen shown above, with all your site content available. But what happens when trying to access this content? On a slightly older test machine (PowerBook G4 running Tiger), double clicks on any folder resulted in this:

Doc Center Crash Reporter

So I can see my site structure, but no actual documents contained therein? Is it too much to ask Microsoft for some testing on the current and one previous version of the OS (Leopard and Tiger)? Kudos for trying, but unless it actually works without crashing, it’s nothing more than a tease. Points are deserved for a great interface, though; many of the icons match those on the Windows side (the check out the arrow, especially), but have been pleasantly Aquafied to feel like a true Mac application. Also, a suggestion: make the main interface browsable using a tree structure, with little disclosure triangles next to the folders. As it stands, you must double click a folder, which opens it in the main window; even though you have iTunes-esque bread crumb navigation at the top, trees would be a faster way to drill down to content, or display multiple content sources in one place.

The best way to describe the SP2 update to Office 2008 is with the old cliché: Good intentions, horrible results. Compatibility and cross-functionality seem to be keywords—and they are great goals, to be sure—but not at the expense of functionality; documents created three days ago by a program should never be broken by a service pack upgrade. If we were talking about breaking with some legacy format from the late 1980s, the argument changes to “suck it up and get with the future”. But this is outrageous. And the new Document Center, while a step in the right direction towards platform parity, is not stable enough for prime time usage. At least not without being on the latest version of the Mac OS—SharePoint sites accessed via IE are backwards compatible to IE 6 and Windows XP, so Leopard and Tiger are not a huge request.

Again, if you can avoid upgrading, by all means, do. If you have already upgraded, join me in entreating the powers that be for a patch that will bring us back our files, and maybe give us access to new ones on SharePoint. It cannot come soon enough.

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  • Ricardo

    Unfortunately, PPTX files sometimes exhibit the same problem you mention. I've created and edited some PPTX files 1 or 2 days prior to updating and imagine my surprise when I tried to open them after the update only to get an error message that said that I need to "download the latest updates"!!!!

    Moreover, the support page at Microsoft is laughable at best. It says "try downloading the latest updates… and if that doesn't work… well… try saving the file in PPT format"… Excuse me? How the hell am I supposed to save the file in PPT format if I can't open the damn file in the first place!!!???

    Unbelievable. Never once have I experienced something like this before. An update that renders the whole suite useless… Great testing, Microsoft.

  • normanj

    This is precisely why I have migrated over and gotten used to Pages and Numbers, although my OCD-ness dictated that I download and immediately install the latest Office for Mac 2008 SP2 update, just in case I needed to use Word or Excel to open a particularly formatted file. What a dummy!

    Now I know why the Wise Ones suggest waiting a few days before installing new updates, although I've not yet had any problems with Mac updates.

    The only reason I own Office for Mac 2008 is because a friend works at Microsoft. To her I ask WTF?

  • Aaron Kraus


    I quite agree. For my personal documents, iWork is absolutely my choice. I do a great deal of consulting work, however, which requires me to interface via Office (and the Import/Export into Pages and Numbers can be dicey with complex formatting), and I also interface with several SharePoint sites. So I was really interested in the Document Center app…not so interested now, just waiting for a real, working version!