Mac Users Face Hurdles with New Office Versions

Companies that use Microsoft Office on both Macintosh and Windows PCs will have to deal with cross-platform compatibility issues with the new Office 2008 productivity suite.

With the introduction of the new Office 2008 productivity suite for Mac OS X, planned for late 2007, companies that rely on Visual Basic for Applications scripts and macros on Macintosh and Windows clients will lose transparent cross-platform compatibility.

This will happen because Microsoft is abandoning VBA script and macro support with the introduction of the new productivity suite.

In addition, the recently released Office 2007 for Windows introduced a new default file format, the OOXML (Office Open XML) .docx format, which is not compatible with Office 2003 on Windows and Office 2004 on Mac OS X. OOXML will be the default file format for Office 2008 also.

As a result, Microsoft and others are scrambling to offer options to regain at least a limited degree of compatibility for future Office users.

Companies that currently support a mixed Mac and PC environment wont have to confront this problem as long as they continue to support the current Office 2003 and Office 2004 suites. But they will have to confront the cross-platform compatibility issue when they decide to upgrade their applications and computers.

But to give customers a new path to compatibility, Microsofts Mac BU (Macintosh Business Unit) released in late May a "provisional" stand-alone, drag-and-drop file format converter tool for Mac OS X.

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This tool allows users to convert Office 2007 docx documents to the RTF format. The company has also said that this tool will be updated later this summer to become a built-in feature of Office 2004 and will allow users to open of Office 2007 Excel and PowerPoint files. This update will be delivered as part of the automated Office update process.

In addition, Apple declined to confirm or deny recent rumors that the upcoming Leopard version of Mac OS X will include a version of TextEdit, the built-in word processor, that could open and save to the .docx format.

But even with the converter tool, cross-platform installations will face problems. Currently, the stand-alone file format converter tool strips Office 2007 files of their attached VBA scripts and macros, although the upcoming revision of the tool may change this.

According to a Microsoft representative, "the Mac BU plans to update the stand-alone converter to enable editable access to VBA macros sent from Office 2007 users," though the timing on this update has not yet been determined. In addition, the final integrated converter should allow users to execute, view and modify VBA macros within files sent from Office 2007 users.

But in the process, Office 2004 users will have to remember to save their documents to the .docm format in Word, .xlsm in Excel and .pptm in Power Point. According to Microsoft, this is due to Windows security concerns, and will allow IT departments to manage whether files with macros attached will be allowed through network firewalls, for example.

If a company moves it Macs to Office 2008 but keeps its PCs on Office 2003, said Microsoft, "although Mac Office 2008 users will not be able to execute, view or modify VBA macros within files sent from the Office 2003 users, the files themselves can be edited without affecting or changing the macros."

Should both Macs and Windows-based PCs go the upgrade route, according to Microsoft, the situation will be the same for Office 2008 users with regard to macros as if other users had Office 2003, and Office 2008 users will need to use the special .docm, .xlsm and .pptm file formats when sending to Office 2007 users.

Keeping Office 2003 for Windows-based PCs and Office 2004 on Macs would retain the current level of compatibility, with a shared file format and VBA support.

Some Office users have expressed exasperation with the loss of cross-platform VBA support, even posting comments on the Mac BUs own blog decrying the decision as inconsiderate to Mac users. They have also said that the Mac BUs advice to start from scratch using AppleScript, Mac OS Xs native scripting environment, is not a replacement. (AppleScript itself is not cross-platform, running only on Mac OS X.)

Next Page: Making the transition.