We take Office 2011 Beta 4 for Mac for a spin -

Office 2008 for Mac was unpopular because it removed support for VBA (Visual Basic for Applications); thus macros in Office 2004 documents were no longer useable. For this reason, many companies and individuals refused to upgrade and are still using Office 2004, a striking parallel to Windows users' unwillingness to upgrade to the MS Vista platform.

The fourth (closed) beta of the upcoming Office 2010 for Mac package, a whopping 1.4 GB download, includes the usual MS Word, MS Excel, MS Powerpoint, but also MS Outlook for Mac ((finally), MS Communicator (which seems to be a rebranded MS Messenger for Mac 8) and Remote Desktop Connection for Mac.

Office 2011 finally marks the return of platform parity for Mac users and also brings a host of new features outlined below.

The installation package, which is only available in a 32-bit version, runs smoothly and seems well-designed, appealing to the Mac user community. The beta can be used for free for 30 days without a license key once a valid email-address is entered.

On the surface, as in previous betas, the apps include a new icon set that employs more legible typography. There is also a well-designed and graphically souped-up wizard explaining new features and asking what you would like to do. The new installer and wizard graphics remind one heavily of the Adobe product line.

For Word, new features touted include the Ribbon which is migrated from the Windows version of Office, co-authoring features, a new publishing layout, full screen view, visual style guides and dynamic reordering. There is also a link to video tutorials.

The new publishing layout turns Word into a desktop publishing tool and can be used to create brochures and pamphlets, but presumably also for designing simple webpages. A long list of useable templates are included with Word 2011. The insert menu has been optimised, allowing you to easily insert multimedia or HTML objects into Word documents. The formatting toolbar seems increasingly useable and basic formatting is noticeably more efficient than on Word 2008 after only a small adjustment period of 5-10 minutes. Overall the new Word is impressive indeed.

Only few changes were visible to Powerpoint 2011 at this time, except for expanded media options, which include the option to broadcast a slideshow and to record audio. But don't expect much from this -- the recording features are as basic as it gets. The most interesting new feature is "rehearse" which allows you to practice the timing of slides ahead of time.

MS Excel now also features a wizard, more easy-to-use templates (i.e. for financial planning or invoicing), pivot tables, sparklines, conditional formatting, and the return of VBA. Here also the menu has been given a great deal of thought. A sample MS Excel 2004 file with macros opened without any problems which could lead many of us to express a giant sigh of relief.

Go Microsoft, for getting it right -- Redmond, it's about time.

Concluding Remarks

All in all, Office for Mac 2011 won't disappoint. In fact all the signs point to MS getting back on track -- Windows 7, Office 2010 for Windows, the upcoming IE9 and Office 2011 for Mac are all, or will soon be noteworthy products.

Unfortunately these improved software packages do not seem to be a result of long-term strategic thinking, but rather should be interpreted as responses to consumer and corporate upgrade refusal combined with fierce competition by Apple, Google, Mozilla and Adobe.

In the computer software industry there are three key success factors: access to consumers, quality and innovation. Given the oligopolistic competition in this sector, MS does not have to worry about access to customers, but the other two factors are unavoidable: for a healthy future, Microsoft should adopt kaizen,the Japanese management culture of continuous improvement, in all of its product lines and focus on continuous quality and innovation.