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.
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.
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 entirely—and blame Apple for it.
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.