The Microsoft marketing team is on the war path to clean up “misconceptions” about Vista, with a massive advertising campaign reputedly gunning for Apple’s fabulous “I’m a Mac” series. Well, I say, more power to the Redmond team. Really. If Microsoft has great products, then the world should know, and I say that without sarcasm.
I’m always amused by the propensity of (some) Windows users to simplistically label me a “Mac fan,” as if my choice of platform has less to do with technical practicalities than ethereal trivialities such as peer group identity or chromatic preference. Honestly, my criteria are much simpler than all that: the tools just shouldn’t suck. Now, I know that outside of BBEdit (if I recall, the original “It doesn’t suck” product) great tools might be hard to come by, but somehow there seems a greater number of them on the Mac than Windows, including the Mac platform itself.
This is not to say that I’d neglect to give credit where it’s due. Indeed, I am going to take a break this month from my usual pastime of conjuring up irreverent phrases to annoy the heck out of Microsoft staffers (which by doing so, I entertain myself and, hopefully, many readers). For this particular installment of my textual creativity, I would like instead to highlight choice offerings from Redmond that I’d be proud to be seen using. (The Zune isn’t one of them.)
To start, let’s look at something my fiancée says I spend way too much time with: the Xbox 360. Yes, we know that the Xbox franchise probably would not have gotten as good a start as it did without Halo. And we all know where Halo hailed from: Bungie, originally a Mac-only developer. But we should not discount the very real possibility that the Xbox would have eventually become quite successful even without Halo, primarily because Microsoft can leverage its extensive experience and working relationships with highly talented Windows game developers.
Another thing Microsoft did right was the Xbox Live service. The Xbox Live infrastructure successfully enabled for the first time a highly convenient, easily accessible virtual universe of like-minded gamers, in the comfort of our collective TV rooms. No longer do we need to scour esoteric chat groups to locate other players for our choice of poison. Just turn on the box and go. (Good luck to Sony trying to replicate that experience for the PlayStation 3. That company hasn’t exactly been on top of any of its games, pun intended, in recent years.) Microsoft now has a strong position from which to battle the Wii, the PlayStation 3, and the Apple TV.
But the world’s largest software vendor is not best loved (or despised) for its gaming console. The Windows franchise is immensely more significant and profitable than Redmond’s entire entertainment division. So it is astounding that Microsoft managed to screw up the Vista roll-out so badly. In fact, it is precisely because of Vista’s poor reception that I find myself so impressed by Microsoft Office 2007. Not Office 2008 for the Mac, mind you, but Office 2007 for Windows.
Yes, folks, I am actually saying that I like Office 2007 and even dare to think it’s still the only serious office suite for the enterprise market, iWork included. And the reason for my opinion goes beyond just the newfangled user interface, but let’s talk about that for now. The Microsoft Office team has given Office 2007 a spectacular “geek makeover,” and it works for me. Take Word, for example. Even though there’s still Microsoft’s legendary feature bloat, Word 2007 is the first version of the program since Word 5.1 (released in 1992) that I’ve been excited about. The scribe sharing my corporeal footprint is very discerning about writing tools, and Word 2007 makes me actually happy to use the program and almost forget that I am on Windows (that part I am still unhappy about). In fact, I feel the user interface improvements of Office 2007 have achieved the rare combination of being both functionally efficient and aesthetically pleasing; the same sweet spot that we love the Mac OS for hitting. Office 2007 is ergonomically better than its predecessors and meets (or exceeds) human interface improvements by alternatives.
But the real pièce de résistance is OneNote 2007. I can almost hear the screams of NoteTaker and NoteBook fans that OneNote isn’t that much different from their choice of note-taking software. I agree, but Microsoft has nicely integrated OneNote 2007 functionality into the rest of the suite, and even with Internet Explorer, so capturing notes is quite seamless and convenient. OneNote 2007 shares the ergonomic refinements of the rest of the suite and has become my information-capturing tool of choice. That’s saying quite a lot, for someone who is so gung-ho about the Mac platform, and to be honest I wish I could use all of this on the Mac, rather than put my data at risk on Windows.
Which leads me to a very important point: To use this stuff, I need to run Windows. It’s the old “killer app” battlefield again. It’s the same reason Microsoft spent so much cash and time offing Netscape. It’s the same reason the Java wars were (are?) waged. If you own the user experience, you own the rest of the pie. But wait, there’s more.
Office 2007 is the only version of Office that gives me seamless, reliable compatibility with any older Microsoft office document format. This is the most important takeaway here. Even though it natively uses the highly controversial Microsoft Open Office XML format, you can set Office 2007 to default to the older Office 97–2003 format. For better or (probably) worse, the reality is Microsoft has a hard lock on the most ubiquitous business file formats in the world (except PDF).
I have not seen seamless compatibility with Microsoft office files with iWork (despite Apple’s claims), OpenOffice.org, or even the Mac’s Office 2008. While those alternative suites generally are able to load files from Word and Excel (and, to a lesser extent, PowerPoint), from what I’ve experienced, there are oftentimes spurious formatting problems that make the transition less than perfect between the platforms and tools. That might be acceptable for personal or academic documents (or environments where you do not exchange files with Microsoft Office users), but it’s a deal breaker for the business world. I wouldn’t, for instance, want an extra carriage return somewhere in an official press release, or a misaligned caption on a product’s datasheet.
So while Apple has been winning numerous battles against the old regime in the “Computing World War Two” of recent years, I feel this is a key area that has yet to be seriously contested. Microsoft, on the other hand, has been quite adept at defending its turf, as can be witnessed by its victory with the OOXML specification.
Ideally, we would be free of proprietary format and protocol locks on our data (including the rendering of the raw data), and be able to choose front-end tools based on their independent merits. But for the time being, Microsoft has a stronghold in the enterprise and can probably withstand a very long siege, even with a growing population of Macintosh hardware clients (which can’t completely get away from running Windows).
As for Web 2.0-based Google tools and iPhone-Exchange interoperability, Microsoft still has a weapon-of-mass-deployment with the Office suite, and seems to be so focused on honing this advantage that the company’s actually produced a quality product, impressing even moi! Microsoft knows that so long as it owns this area, it can always recapture lost ground. I don’t know what Microsoft’s done with its development teams in recent years, but if it could apply the same level of kaizen it had with the Xbox 360 and Office 2007, to its other offerings, maybe many of us would be less unhappy about its dominance of the computing landscape.
As it stands, the saga has yet to play out. That’s the nature of world wars.