Having Microsoft Office available on Mac OS gives Apple needed credibility with customers. But it also gives Microsoft the ability to suddenly pull the plug if it ever decides to. Or Microsoft can provide "just enough" Outlook compatibility that people who must have a Mac can connect to the server at the office, but normal users would take a pass. That strategy has been enough to keep Macs from making a comeback in general office applications. This situation would explain Apples interest in creating an office competitor. Its already been assembling the pieces by adding applications and features to applications such as mail, address book, iCal and iSync.Rebuild AppleWorks to be more competitive with Word, Excel and PowerPoint, and Apple could create a very nice and competitive office suite. Or Apple could build atop one of the open-source office competitors.This scenario could be successful provided Microsoft doesnt play tricks with connectivity and file formats just to thwart Apples effort. Probably not likely, but it has happened before. Apple, of course, would like to have it both ways, offering its own Office-compatible suite while Microsoft continues to offer the real thing. Whether there is enough market to support both is questionable, plus the existence of a new Apple suite would give Microsoft all of the excuses needed to bail on Macintosh entirelyand blame Apple for it. Click here to read about a service pack for Microsoft Office 2004 for the Mac. Several years ago, a friend at Apple suggested I should think of the company more as a software vendor than as a hardware company. That was before the surge in iPod sales, but the point is valid. Apple must find ways to get more revenue from existing Mac customers, and monopolizing Mac apps is one way to do it. I do not know Apples plans nor what the company is or isnt about to announce. It would not surprise me if Apple decided it could live without Microsoft Office. And today, customers may be ready to accept that, thanks largely to the open-source efforts that have proven that you can be Microsoft-compatible without actually being Microsoft. For Apple to become more competitive in the business market, which I think is something the company would like to do, it needs a suite that is more Outlook-compatible than what Microsoft has been willing to offer. Apple also needs to innovate beyond Microsoft into collaborative software, perhaps based on the .Mac online platform. This works best if Microsoft and Apple have reached an agreement that phases out Mac Office in favor of a new Apple product. Microsoft might actually help Apple pick up some business users if Redmond could make a graceful exit from the Mac. If Apple and Microsoft have worked out such an arrangement, Mac Office can go away, Apple can innovate, and customers can have some assurance their Macs will still play in the Microsoft universe. But if Apple manages to alienate Microsoft, as it already has Adobe and countless others, the transition would be a difficult one. Obviously, the best solution is an amicable separation if Microsoft is to leave Macintosh. Or maybe there is nothing to this at all, and all of the speculation is just that. As a user, Id like to see Apple create a suite and Microsoft continue to offer one. But what Id really like to see is an Apple with enough confidence to release meaningful product roadmaps rather than having to rely on the elements of surprise and hype to sell its products. That would reduce speculation. For as much as customers love their Macs, they are still left wondering from one Macworld to the next what the future holds. Having to guess all of the time is not at all reassuring, but it is Steve Jobs preferred form of marketing. So, we live with it. Check out eWEEK.coms for the latest news, reviews and analysis on Apple in the enterprise.