Microsoft Office is a curious thing. Not only because of the size, breadth and depth of the product, but also because of its ubiquity. It really is everywhere – it doesn’t matter that it might be Office 97 on some desktops, Office 2000 on others, and a mishmash of XP and 2003 over in the corner. Whatever the numerical differences, the reality is that most of the core functionality is the same across the board.
True, more recent versions have brought flashier features and better integration between the apps, but you can operate in a mixed version environment with few problems, providing you take care of some clear gotchas. And let’s not forget Office 2004 on the Mac – a completely different platform, yet it’s file compatible and functionally the same as its Windows cousin.
The end result is that Office is viewed as a singular entity – it doesn’t matter which version you have, it’s just Office. This has almost taken on the level of a myth despite wrinkles between the versions. And the competition has simultaneously managed to do a remarkably bad job, mostly destroying themselves over the years through sheer incompetence.
But something has gone wrong with the Office plan. There’s a chink in the armour. It’s not much at first glance, but the warning signs are there. You see, the Macintosh Business Unit inside Microsoft has come across a nasty problem. Office 2004 is targeted at the PowerPC platform, which is fine because there’s still a PPC version of OS X – a huge installed base of G4 and G5 machines remains out there. However, Apple has transitioned to the Intel platform over the past year and the PPC/G4/G5 world will soon be gone.
If you’re a developer for the Mac platform, it isn’t hard to make a cross-platform application binary that will run on both the PPC and Intel worlds. You just click the tickbox when you do the compile. And it works, if your code is in the new Apple compiler. Unfortunately, the Mac version of Office has a huge chunk of ageing, grungy code that’s been hand-ported from Windows Intel to the Mac PPC platform. (Actually, it went via the OS 9 version, which gives you an idea of the tortuous route it’s taken.) In short, moving the application suite from PPC to Intel isn’t going to be easy.
So fast forward to today and the fact that Microsoft has just revealed new details about its next version of Office for Mac. Seeing the marketing opportunity that will exist once the big launch of Office 2007 has happened, it’s no surprise to see that there will be a major refresh of the Office suite for Mac next summer.
Now go read the blogs of the MacBU team (naturally, in our new-era world, you don’t admit to your faults but blog about them instead). Imagine my surprise when reading through some postings from the various Office development leaders to discover that although Office will be released next summer, there will be no Visual Basic for Applications, the macro programming language.
For many people, the lack of VBA won’t be a big issue. But for power users, and those with a large set of corporate styles and macros, which do useful things like looking up information on various servers, this will come as a thunderclap. Of course, Microsoft is doing its best to cover up this gaping hole, talking about the possibility of using AppleScript external scripting to do many of the same things that users do in macros today. Except for two things: there’s no sign of a VBA-to-AppleScript conversion tool, which means all macros would have to be rewritten, tested and debugged on the Mac platform. And that immediately breaks cross-platform design and deployment. Worse still, many power Excel users make use of the VBA custom function capability to extend and empower Excel’s in-cell capabilities.