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ATPM 5.12
December 1999


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The Personal Computing Paradigm

by Michael Tsai,

The State of Microsoft’s Mac Software

More than two years ago Steve Jobs declared that the war with Microsoft was over, that Microsoft didn’t have to lose in order for Apple to win. On that day in August, Apple and Microsoft made a historic agreement. The exact terms are not public knowledge, but there are some things we know for sure: Microsoft invested 100 million dollars in Apple at a rock-bottom share price, and the two companies quietly resolved their patent disputes, most likely on terms favorable to Microsoft. In return, Microsoft agreed to release a new version of Office for the Mac corresponding to each new version for Windows.

Although Microsoft probably got the better end of the deal, it was beneficial to both parties. Microsoft released Office 98 (although it’s not clear whether this was in the works before the agreement), instantly giving Apple credibility. The availability of Office 98 ensured that buying a Mac was a “compatible” choice.

Apple made Internet Explorer the default Mac OS Web browser and Outlook Express the default e-mail client. Internet Explorer was at least as good a browser as the Netscape Navigator of that time, and Outlook Express 4 was a big step up from Claris Emailer Lite. Even if these decisions were mandated by the agreement, they were good for Apple’s customers.

But not everything that came of the deal is as good as it seems. As in their run-ins with the Justice Department, some of what Microsoft says about its software is technically true but misleading in practice. Microsoft made a big fuss about its recommitment to writing Mac software “from the ground up.” Whatever that means—most of the code in Microsoft Office is shared between the Mac and Windows versions, and the interface is nearly identical between the two platforms. Nevertheless, the product garnered rave reviews from people who had publicly derided the speed and interface of Word 6 and Excel 5.

It’s my opinion that those reviews were overreactions; when something is truly awful, small improvements can seem like blessings. For those who used Word 6, Word 98 must have seemed like manna from Redmond. But for those of us who turned to ClarisWorks, Nisus Writer, and WordPerfect during the Word 6 debacle, Word 98 seemed like Word 6 with Window dressing. Like its predecessor, Word 98 is a port of the Windows version, although it tries a bit harder to fit in on the Macintosh.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad Microsoft continues to write Macintosh software. If you like it, by all means use it. But I think it’s important to point out that all is not as rosy as it seems. Microsoft continues to make its software visually complex and difficult to use. And by releasing the Mac versions so much later than their Windows counterparts, Microsoft continues to treat its Mac customers as second-class citizens.

Release Parity and Timing

Each release of Microsoft Office for Windows now has a corresponding release on the Mac. However, so far the Mac versions have arrived much later. Office 97 was available for Windows long before Office 98 reached the Mac, even though the two have essentially the same feature set. (Mac Office integrates with the Mac OS, and Office for Windows integrates with Windows, but it also includes Windows-only components like the Access database.) The latest versions of Office for the Mac are the Special Editions of Office 98 for iMac and iBook users. On the Windows side, Office 2000 has already shipped.

In the browser department, the Windows version of Internet Explorer 5 has been available since March. The 5.0.1 maintenance release was released in November. But the Mac version has no announced ship date. It is true that IE 4.5 has some nice usability features that 4.0 did not, however its support of HTML 4.0 lags, and it has no support for XML (eXtensible Markup Language). XML is not yet a big deal for users, but developers are starting to think seriously about it. Macs have long held a disproportionately large portion of the Web authoring market, but with no browser support for emerging standards like XML, I wonder how long this can continue.

These release schedules are nothing compared to Microsoft’s other Mac products—or lack thereof. CD-ROMs like Encarta and Bookshelf are no longer available for the Mac at all. Whether or not you miss these products, their cancellation can hardly be seen as a sign of commitment to the Mac platform.

Microsoft Office

Office 98 is almost exactly like Office 97 for Windows. The menus, dialog boxes, and toolbars are identical. This might be good for people who switch platforms frequently, but it foregoes standard Macintosh interface conventions in favor of ones from the Windows world. For instance, Word has a spiffy non-standard scroll bar that uses yellow tooltips to tell you which part of the document you’ll be looking at when you release the mouse button. In contrast, the Finder and other good Mac applications scroll the document as you drag the scroll thumb so that such indicators are useless—you know where you’ll be when you release the mouse button because you’re already there. For other examples of Office 98 Windowsisms, see my previous writings ( June 1998, July 1998 ) on the subject of Office 98’s interface.

Microsoft likes to tout Office 98’s support of QuickTime and Macintosh Drag and Drop. They sound like they’ve created a great Mac product, but how many people choose their word processor based on QuickTime support? And since Drag and Drop has been around since System 7.5, does it really belong on a feature checklist? (Given that Internet Explorer still can’t drag and drop, perhaps the answer is ‘yes.’) Still, support for technologies Mac users take for granted does not a good Mac application make.

Beyond Office’s interface, I question whether Microsoft has the correct development priorities. The old Apple erred by over-engineering. Products like OpenDoc, PowerTalk, and QuickDraw GX were grand solutions to common problems faced by Mac users. They offered new paradigms for documents, communication, and printing respectively. Microsoft’s strategy has been the opposite. Their core Office suite is already shipping and has a huge installed base. Each new release includes lots of new features, but no fundamental changes. (No, I don’t consider the Office 2000 Web integration a fundamental change.)

New features sell upgrades, but they don’t keep long-time customers loyal the way fixing bugs would. I’m continually amazed that Microsoft spent so much time on animated characters (which are fully rendered in Office 2000), yet seemingly can’t get simple things like file exchange with Lotus 1-2-3 to work. They can insert globally unique identifiers in word processing documents, but have not perfected the art of saving large files reliably. And there are features to automatically underline URLs and change emoticons to dingbat characters, yet important features like cross references don’t work properly.

There are so many of these flashy features that it’s hard to find the one you want, especially if it’s not the kind of feature that Office will step in and do automatically. One reason is that Office 98 does a lot. But another is that its interface is extremely complex, containing more dialog boxes and modes than any other pieces of software I can think of. TidBITS Technical Editor Geoff Duncan, writing on the TidBITS-Talk mailing list, provides a great example:

I’ve been browbeaten—er, “informed”—by a couple TidBITS Talk readers that Word 6 and Word 98 offer grep-like pattern matching capabilities in their Replace functions. In Word 98, at least, the feature was completely obscured from me by:

1) checkboxes that behave like radio buttons

2) a pop-up menu which looks like a button and the contents of which change dynamically depending on the status of checkboxes and the location of your insertion point

3) inconsistent treatment of special symbols and expressions between the “find” and “replace” fields in the Replace dialog

However, pattern-matching capabilities are there, and I stand corrected. Word continues to become more like Unix: full of powerful capabilities if you can take the time to find and understand them.

This illustrates two points. First, because the interface got in the way, this feature escaped the notice of exactly the type of user who might know what to do with it. Second, Word has powerful pattern matching that conforms to Microsoft’s standard rather than the industry’s (regular expressions). In contrast, the Power Find feature in Nisus Writer is easier to discover, easier to use, and far more powerful.

Outlook Express

Outlook Express 5.0 was one of the most anticipated software releases of the year. Emailer fans hoped it would reincarnate enough of their favorite features so they could switch to an e-mail client that had some hope of becoming Carbonized for Mac OS X. OE users were anxious to gain some bragging rights over their Eudora- and Mailsmith-using friends. And it seems that another group of people had expectations for OE 5: people at Microsoft apparently envisioned OE 5 as the release that would bring the e-mail client in line with its Windows cousin.

Nearly every one of these groups got what it wanted. OE 5 has outstanding scheduling features that best even those of Emailer. (Although it still lacks Emailer’s excellent Auto-Log feature and AOL support.) Its filtering and searching, while not yet as strong as those in Mailsmith and Eudora, are enormous steps forward. And the new interface is very similar in function and layout to the Windows version. This isn’t as big a problem as with Office since OE 5 does a better job of adopting Mac behaviors. For instance, it has a check box for switching between Office and Mac keyboard navigation controls.

However, I do take issue with a seeming change in the philosophy of the program. Outlook Express has become more like an Office program in that its interface is visually complex and non-standard, for little apparent reason.

Contrary to Apple’s recommendations, buttons in Outlook Express 5 don’t look like buttons. Instead, they consist of flat slabs of icons and text that raise slightly when you move the mouse over them. For this reason I liken them to Web images with JavaScript rollovers, and dub them “rollover buttons.” Rollovers accomplish two things on the Web. They look cool and they make it clear which parts of an image will do something when clicked. But an e-mail program doesn’t need to look cool; users won’t follow the underlined links to a competing program if the current one doesn’t wow them. And there’s no need for Mac programmers to use special effects to signal where the user can click. Buttons have been doing this splendidly for more than a decade, and Apple provides easy ways to draw them.


The Add Action button is rolled over. The icon for the Remove Action button exhibits what actor Richard Dreyfuss describes as a “gesture of failure” that is common in Windows interfaces.

Also like the Web, OE 5 incorporates a number of buttons that say “Click here to...” and summon popup dialogs. To whoever thought of this, I repeat the words of (Windows) interface designer Alan Cooper: “Visually show what, textually show which.” Make the button look as though clicking it will bring up more options. Then use the text to show which options. Text telling me that I’m looking at a button is silly. Of course, OE 5’s “click me” buttons mask a deeper problem. Rollover buttons in application software were invented (in my opinion) to hide the fact that Microsoft toolbars were becoming so cluttered with buttons. Similarly, the “click me” buttons seem designed to mask the fact that OE 5 has layers upon layers of options and modes.


You can fool a user’s eyes, but not her brain. The interface isn’t less complex because it looks less intimidating. It’s more complex because no other Mac program uses “click me” buttons to summon popup dialogs, and because these increase the number of modes. (In fairness to Microsoft, I think popup dialogs were invented by the Claris Organizer folks. They make more sense in Claris Organizer’s contact editor, but even there they feel a bit weird.)


Looking at and using OE 5 I get the feeling that its designers thought a lot about out-featuring the competition. They took looks and behaviors that are completely standard on the Macintosh and changed them in subtle ways, presumably for increased coolness, but at the expense of usability.

Here are some examples:

oe5mac os5macdialog

The above gripes have to do with looks, not functionality. Featurewise, OE 5 is one of the more ironic programs I’ve seen. It is far more intelligent than its predecessor, yet important basic features have regressed since 4.5, and other simple features were apparently left out in favor of the eye candy mentioned above. Most of the irony relates to OE 5’s new way of storing messages in a single database.


If Microsoft wants to earn real customer loyalty (rather than loyalty because of compatibility), it should follow through on the intent of what its marketing department says. Say it’s built to be great Macintosh software, and then make it great Macintosh software. As the world’s largest software maker and the employer of more Mac programmers than any company outside Apple (many of whom used to work at Apple, no less), Microsoft is in a unique position to write great Macintosh software.

Most of Microsoft’s software has so many features that the best thing the company could do for its customers is to concentrate on ease of use. They can do this by using standard Macintosh looks and behaviors where appropriate, and also by reducing interface “busyness” and removing modes. Power comes not from overwhelming the user with complexity but from empowering him by making the software simple to understand and use. Claris’ motto used to be “Simply powerful software.” Where is Claris these days?

apple“The Personal Computing Paradigm” is copyright © 1999 Michael Tsai, Michael recognizes that his opinions about Office 98 and Outlook Express place him in the minority, although he can’t imagine why. His long-document publishing tool of choice is Adobe FrameMaker, which is more cross-platform than Office and is more powerful to boot.

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Reader Comments (3)

Nicholas Fernandez · June 24, 2002 - 03:29 EST #1
How do I add a scrolling feature in the drop down address list in Outlook Express for Macintosh?
Lee Bennett (ATPM Staff) · June 25, 2002 - 00:07 EST #2
Nicholas - what exactly, do you mean? Are you referring to the area where you enter e-mail addresses into a new mail message window? That area auto-expands a few lines as needed, and then a scroll bar automatically appears if you start adding more and more names.
Mehul Jhaveri · December 4, 2003 - 11:28 EST #3
I have got my MS Oulook (.PST file) ,how should I transfer to oulook for Mac or entourage or is any tool available to imort the same.Please do help me in ddoing so.

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