Can the Mac Do Without Microsoft Office?

Opinion: 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 so decides.

Can the Macintosh survive without Microsoft Office? Its a question that has followed Steve Jobs since his return to Cupertino in 1996. At the time, Apple was in deep financial trouble, and a bailout from Microsoft—of all people—got the company back on its feet.

The concern isnt that the typical Macintosh "consumer" customer requires MS Office for digital photography or their iPod.

But home Macs are generally used at least occasionally by someone who has Microsoft Office running on Windows at work. The thinking goes that, at some point, Office compatibility figures somewhere into the purchase of most Macintosh hardware.

And nothing says Office compatibility quite like a real, honest-to-goodness version of Office for the Mac—even if Microsoft has for years crippled the Mac version in such a way as to make it unattractive to "real" (meaning Windows) Office users. Even today, there is no Outlook for Mac, just a program called Entourage that is only barely compatible with corporate Exchange servers.

/zimages/1/28571.gifRead more here about the rumors surrounding an Apple office suite.

The deal that saved Apple included Microsofts promise to keep building Microsoft Office and Internet Explorer for five years. That deal ran out in August 2002 and was not extended, despite pressure from analyst Rob Enderle and myself to keep it alive. At one point, Microsoft even agreed to make a new agreement, though I think there was a side agreement between the two companies that Apple wouldnt ask for one.

Since that time, Apple has introduced its Safari browser, Microsoft has ditched Internet Explorer for Mac OS, and life on earth has continued to flourish. Microsoft also has released two editions of Office for OS X since the end of the development agreement. Many people believe the current Mac Office is the companys best Office, regardless of platform.

Now, with the rumor-fueled run-up to Macworld has come speculation that Apple will announce its own office suite. The basic elements are already in place. MacOS X already comes with a calendar, address book, mail client and synchronization utility.

The AppleWorks suite is available for OS X, though it hardly compares to Microsofts "MacOffice" 2004.

Apple today does not offer a real Outlook competitor, but it easily could. Of course, to be really useful, such a product either needs to talk to Microsoft Exchange servers, or Apple needs to offer an Exchange-like server capable of supporting Outlook clients on Windows machines.

Though an interesting topic for speculation, such a server, if not beyond Apples technical capabilities, is beyond its level of interest in the business customers it would support.

That Microsofts Office for Macintosh 2004 is a better suite than the Windows version is a topic for another column. In its most recent release, the program isnt nearly as crippled as previous versions were, all in ways that would make Windows users not want to buy a Mac and Mac users unable to easily connect to Exchange servers.

But you know the saying that a government big enough to give you everything is big enough to take everything away? Insert "Microsoft" for "government," and you have Apples predicament.

Next Page: "Just enough" compatibility.