Does Microsoft matter?

Many people will see the announcement of a word processor from Apple as a statement of intent to reduce the dependency of the Mac platform on Microsoft. While AppleWorks (formerly ClarisWorks) had been around for years, it has always been seen too low-end to be much competition for Microsoft Word, Excel, or PowerPoint. But with arrival of Pages, a high-end word processor and page layout program, Apple is offering many professional and academic users a viable alternative to Word. If Pages turns out to be as successful as Safari and Keynote, does the Mac Business Unit at Microsoft have something to worry about? And if Microsoft stopped producing Office for the Mac, would it really matter?

Prologue: Safari and Keynote

Not long after the release of Apple’s Safari browser, Microsoft ceased developing their Internet Explorer browser. Had Microsoft stopped shipping the Explorer browser a few years earlier, pundits would have pointed to yet another sign of the Mac platform’s imminent demise. As part of the “five year agreement” made between Microsoft and Apple in 1998, Microsoft had effectively thrown Apple a lifeline by guaranteeing development of the Explorer browser as well as the Microsoft Office suite of applications, ensuring that for the foreseeable future Mac users would have access to modern versions of these key programs. But by 2003, everything had changed, and Apple was a vigorous, profitable company enjoying buoyant sales and turning out innovative, popular products. So Explorer has faded away largely unnoticed and unlamented, with many Mac users having long since made the jump to Safari.

Keynote was rather different: it was pitched directly at the industry standard on both Mac and Windows platforms, PowerPoint. Not only did Keynote cost less than half as much as PowerPoint, but it also came with much more sophisticated graphical and typographical features, including better use of colour, shadows, and transparency; automatic ligatures; and the ability to export files as PDFs and QuickTime movies. Though PowerPoint still had some advantages over Keynote, most notably in its better support for 35 mm slides and printing, as far as on-screen presentations go, Keynote is far and away the superior tool.

If Keynote was a challenge to Microsoft, it was a subtle one. Since PowerPoint is the junior partner in the Office package relative to Word and Excel, it wouldn’t threaten sales of Microsoft Office v. X to any great extent. After all, most people buy Office because they need Word, and the fact that Excel and PowerPoint are part of the deal just makes the package even better value. After their success with consumer level applications like iPhoto and iTunes, Keynote was a way for Apple to enter the business applications market without eliciting outright hostility from Microsoft.

Microsoft Office 2004

Whether or not Keynote was meant as a direct challenge to Microsoft, there’s no question that the Mac Business Unit at Microsoft studied Keynote carefully and implemented as many of its features into the next version of PowerPoint as they could. There were limits to what could be done with PowerPoint 2004 though, not because of some deficit of imagination at Microsoft, but because of the need to maintain file format compatibility and feature parity with the Windows version of the program, PowerPoint 2003. So while the new version of PowerPoint included such Keynote-like features as three-dimensional slide transitions and translucent graphics, things like anti-aliased text and automatic ligatures are either absent or imperfectly applied.

Similarly, all the important new features in Word 2004 and Excel 2004 are the same as those in the new versions of Word and Excel for Windows. However, one of Office’s greatest selling points — that Word, Excel, and PowerPoint files can be shared easily with your Windows-using colleagues — becomes a liability when it comes to keeping up with developments on the Mac platform. Though a fine Mac program, it needs to stay grounded in a Windows world, limiting the degree to which it can fully exploit the advanced but Mac-specific technologies in the same way that Apple’s own programs like Keynote can. Don’t expect to see Microsoft Office doing much with Quartz Extreme, multiprocessor PowerMacs, PDF printing, the iDisk, AppleScript, or QuickTime.


As mentioned before, AppleWorks is in no way is it competition for Microsoft Office. It’s a great program to bundle with the consumer-level Macs, and far better than Microsoft Works, but if your needs stretch beyond writing letters and essays or balancing a home budget, chances are you will need to get something a bit more heavy duty. For example, AppleWorks doesn’t have a way to quickly create indexes and contents pages like Word, and the spreadsheet module doesn’t have the powerful macro language that Excel does. While the new iWork package doesn’t (yet) offer any competition for Excel, there will certainly be lots of Mac users who will take the arrival of the Pages program as a sign that Apple are taking on Word in the same way as they did with PowerPoint using Keynote.

People might think this, but they’re wrong: if anything, Pages will eat away at AppleWorks sales. The story of ClarisWorks/AppleWorks has probably run its course. After ten years, it’s starting to look a little creaky. For one thing, the raison d’être of AppleWorks has always been providing word processing and other office functionality using the minimum of hardware resources, easily and at a low cost. In other words, compared with the whole Microsoft Office suite, a home or small office user could write letters, analyse budgets, and design things like club newsletters on an older computer with less memory and hard disk space at a fraction of the cost and without the need to wade through any hundred-page manuals. This made a lot of sense when many home users were using things like Mac Classics and low-end Performas, and even schools and small businesses were more likely to be using LC and Performa machines than Quadras and Power Macs.

Things are different now. Anyone running OS X will be running a fast computer anyway, and probably have plenty of memory and disk space to spare. Even if they don’t, adding memory and installing a larger hard drive are much easier than ever before, and both can be picked up for very little money. Advances in the development of user interfaces, as well as physically larger monitors, multitasking, online help and other goodies has made using a computer easier than ever before. The net result is that people are not too bothered if a program has stiff system requirements, just so long as it is powerful. So while AppleWorks remains a relatively svelte, intuitive program, other consumer applications like iMovie and Garage Band are giants in comparison, and have spawned a whole cottage industry of writers turning out books to teach users how to get the most out of these programs.

Both Pages and Keynote use the core OS X features like PDF printing, advanced typography, and support for a wide range of graphics formats. When it comes to aesthetics, this allows them to leap ahead of programs like AppleWorks (and to some extent even Office 2004) that don’t. However, while Keynote takes on PowerPoint convincingly in its breadth of functionality, Pages is much more modest and significantly below the level of Microsoft Word. Pages lacks, for example, indexing tools, although it does have a tool for creating a table of contents. In terms of things like graphic design and final output, Pages is heavily biased towards colour printing and on-screen display rather than traditional black and white printing. So things like tables and charts work best where colour helps distinguish the data rather than pattern, and this isn’t much of an advantage to someone creating a table to put into a lab report or dissertation. Lacking a spreadsheet partner like Word has with Excel, there isn’t an easy way to cut and paste complex charts taken from big spreadsheets, and so users of Excel will probably want to stick with Word. Where Pages does score well is as a page layout program, and so just like AppleWorks it’s a great tool for producing lightweight brochures, newsletters, and so on. While it isn’t a competitor for QuarkXPress or InDesign, there will certainly be lots of small businesses and clubs that will find Pages a valuable and inexpensive tool that is ideal for their needs.

So we come back to the point made earlier that while Keynote may be stepping on PowerPoint’s toes, Word has nothing to fear from Pages. Sure, there may be some people who will opt for Pages instead of Word 2004 when they’re shopping for a word processor this year, but these people could probably have managed with AppleWorks anyway, and might as well look at some of the other options, like Mariner Write and Nisus Writer, while they’re at it. Instead, it’s much better to look at Pages as the replacement for the word processing and drawing modules of AppleWorks, with Keynote standing in for the presentation module. Of course this leaves the painting, spreadsheet, and database modules unaccounted for, and this really is where the pundits ought to be looking, instead of worrying about iLife putting an end to the development of Microsoft Office on the Mac.

So does the Mac need Microsoft?

Outside of Office 2004, Microsoft doesn’t really contribute a huge amount to the Mac in terms of productivity software, although since Virtual PC was brought into the Microsoft stable, they are at least responsible for this useful tool. There are a few utility applications of note, including the Windows Media Player, MSN Messenger, and Microsoft Remote Desktop Client, but many Mac users could easily work for years without needing to download and use any one of these. In contrast, Internet Explorer remains an important program for some users, if only because it provides a way into web sites that don’t play nicely with things like Safari, but otherwise the main contribution Microsoft makes to the Mac marketplace is in its peripherals, such as mice and keyboards.

Really the single most important contribution Microsoft makes to the Mac platform is in developing Office. If Microsoft dropped everything else, from keyboards through to the Mac version of the Windows Media Player, most Mac users probably wouldn’t even notice. The graphics and design ends of the Mac market depend far more heavily on companies like Adobe, Macromedia, and Quark, for example. But if Office disappeared, it would be difficult to see how Macs could maintain their place in offices, either in business or academia. It’s not that there aren’t alternative word processors or spreadsheets, it’s just that only Office maintains the 100% compatibility with Windows PCs that anyone who needs to collaborate with others needs.

So, does the Mac need Microsoft? The answer has to be a “yes”, if only because the Office suite remains the absolute standard for professionals in both the Mac and PC worlds. There may be problems with the Office 2004, not least of which is the fact that in maintaining compatibility with the Microsoft Windows version of the package, the software engineers can’t fully exploit all the typographical and graphical advantages that the Mac enjoys.

The other side of the question is whether Apple are deliberately trying to undermine the centrality of the Office suite to Mac users so that if Microsoft were to pull out, they’d have enough of their own or third party alternatives to keep the Mac market viable. Maybe, but Pages isn’t really a step in that direction, at least not yet. In other words, Keynote taking on PowerPoint wasn’t a sign of things to come, but a high water mark. At least for the time being, expect instead to see AppleWorks fade away as the iWork suite does for the home and small office what the iLife package did for amateur photographers and home movie makers.

Leave a Reply