Earlier this week I was able to get my hands on a special preview of Microsoft’s Office 2011 for Mac including the all new for OS X Outlook. I must admit, it’s probably the best effort that the Mac Office team has put together yet. My first impression was that it loads FAST, about ten times faster than 2008 in fact. The speed increase is in great part due to Office 2008 not being written for Intel chips and we no longer have to suffer the slow speed of loading up it in Rosetta, it’s still not 64 bit but trust me this is a huge leap forward.
So apart from Outlook which we will get to a little later, Office 2011 includes Word, Excel, and Powerpoint all equipped with Office for Windows style ribbons. Also thrown in for good measure is a revised edition of MSN Messenger for Mac and it’s enterprise counterpart Microsoft Communicator. Microsoft Document Connection is also included along with Silverlight and a new Windows Media Component for QuickTime. Just about the only thing they didn’t throw in is MS Access and Sharepoint Designer, the former would have been interesting to see but I bet we can all agree that latter surely would not be missed by anyone.
So what’s new in Word, Excel and PowerPoint?
The first thing you are sure to notice after the speed bump is the ribbon, not because it makes standard Word functions and tools so much easier to navigate but because it is SO UGLY and in three different shades of grey. Big deal you might say, but take a good look at it, it’s as if they threw in it as an after thought even though that is clearly not the point.
If you have been using Office on a Windows PC, the variant degrees of colour is not such a big deal especially in the Windows XP Fisher Price interface but once you start using it on Windows 7 it starts to look odd. On the Mac, it just looks like it’s been cobbled together by a colour blind engineer.
One promise that Office 2011 makes and actually lives up to is a much better compatibility. In fact complicated Word Docs with macros and links to Excel Spreadsheets created on a Windows machine open up just fine on the Mac. The MacBU team have also turned on some coauthoring and collaboration tools that should be interesting to tryout. The “New From Template” screen that greets you is a little annoying since it’s not very easy to turn off until you’ve opened an app a few times, but it is very impressive to use. From print layouts to publishing layouts, someone actually spent some quality time putting together these new designs that I would actually want to use. And while the Powerpoint default layouts aren’t nearly as breathtaking as the basic ones in Keynote, they are easy enough on the eyes that we might actually starting seeing some exciting things in your everyday boardroom meetings. Someone with enough design flare might even be able to create an exciting short bullet point presentation.
As you start to use the new Office suite more and more you’ll find some familiar Mac OS X features such as scrubbing across an icon to see all the slides included in the template. The media button actually looks and acts like the native media button because it is the native feature, yet you don’t feel like you’re launching a new app when you try and use it. Word and Powerpoint will even let you edit photos in what appears to be an editor built with Core Graphics in mind, from cropping to background manipulation, it’s basic but fast and impressive. You get the impression that someone at Microsoft finally understood that using OS X CORE tools could actually make Office a better product for the life long Mac users without taking away any familiarity for the new switchers. They “GOT” it. Finally, they seem to have understood what makes the Mac the computer you WANT to use. Even Excel got a much needed injection of power with the addition of inline graphics known as Sparkilines to Windows users and Pivot tables that will open in either the Windows or the OS X version of Excel. This is a pretty big deal in most offices since the IT or Business Analysis team which are probably Windows based will often get a set of numbers ready for the mac based Sales and Marketing teams who then struggle to use the data in their presentations. This should help various departments work smarter together.
When I bought my first generation Intel MacBook almost 5 years ago, I loaded up Entourage 2004, looking forward to seeing a familiar email environment and instead was greeted by a mish-mosh of poorly glued together elements from Outlook Express, and whatever they could steal from second rate calendaring programmes. The breaking point was the fact that it would not even connect to the company Exchange server. As if Microsoft was making a stance that no one using a Mac could ever work in an enterprise environment. Well, I guess times have changed in Redmond, as the best improvement of the in the entire Office 2011 suite is by far the introduction of fully loaded Mac version of Outlook. This is not an “almost there” version like Entourage 2008 was. From the ability to connect to Exchange 2007 servers and sync up all your folders, have Exchange rules applied for mail sorting and even the ability to set your out of office message. It’s all there. There is a pretty cool conversation view too, but I still prefer to sort my mail by flags and then date of reception. The contacts view is great and the ability to poll the LDAP and the exchange directory is even better. They have even gone to some impressive lengths to include a universal inbox so that you can happily live in your Exchange and Gmail worlds at the same time. For the Apple Mail users, this is nothing new. But it certainly would have been a show stopper if had it been left out of Outlook. The layout is very nice and if you hide the ribbon, you would almost feel as if you were still using Mail. The Outlook elements are all there but they simply look and feel at home. Apart from Exchange mail, importing your other email accounts is a real breeze too; PST files can finally be imported so there is no need to upload all your mail to an IMAP account as a middleware step for migrating your email from the PC to the Mac.
All in all the MacBU team have done a great job in making Office for the Mac relevant again. I’d have no problems suggesting that a new switcher go ahead and get Office as I’m sure they’d be up to the same speed they were on their Windows machine. And long time Office for Mac users should seriously consider the upgrade as just the time saved by not having to stare at the Excel and Word splash screens will more than make up for the cost. Yes, it really is that much faster.
Office 2011 for Mac should be out this October, however if you’re unlucky enough to have recently bought Office 2008, Microsoft will let you upgrade for free. And if you can manage to get your hands on a copy, either for Beta testing or advanced review, then it’s definitely worth the install. I never thought I would ever say this about another Microsoft product again but this is one upgrade that should definitely be on your short list for new software.