Office for the Mac: The Same, Only Different

Microsoft's Office 2011 for the Mac goes on sale today-the first version to support Office's Ribbon interface, the first one in years with Outlook, and one that's priced to move. The company provided me with a pre-release copy a few weeks ago, and when I've been using a Mac I've been running Office and mostly enjoying the experience. That wasn't a given: I mostly avoided its predecessor, Office 2008, which was slow and not only lacked the Ribbon but had a floating-palette interface I actively disliked. (I was known to run a virtualized copy of Windows on Macs mostly so I could use Windows Office.)

For some people, the fact that Microsoft-a company who has been known to deride Apple's customers as trendy spendthrifts-still makes Office for the Mac is apparently hard to reconcile. Microsoft's press site has a story that seems designed both to reassure Apple fans that Microsoft loves them and Microsoft fans that it doesn't love Apple fans that much.

One of the fascinating things about Office for Mac is that it isn't really the same product as Windows incarnation of Office at all. It's created by a Mac-specific group within Microsoft that isn't part of the Office team, and which seems to be authorized to go its own merry way. Office 2008, for instance, came out a year after Office 2007 for Windows, yet it pretty much spurned the Office 2007 Ribbon-it did hint at it in a roundabout way-even though Microsoft had been busy pitching it as a much-needed revolution.

Office 2011, on the other hand, has a Ribbon. I say "a Ribbon" because it's not the Ribbon from Office for Windows.

Here's the Mac version of Word's Ribbon:

And here's the Windows version:

The two versions have different tabs, different icons arranged differently-they're just different.

When Microsoft shipped Office 2007, it explained that it wasn't technically feasible to retain traditional menus and toolbars, at least as an option. Well, Office 2011 still has menus and toolbars-in fact, there's no way to get rid of the menus, and both the old-style toolbars and the Ribbon are turned on by default, leading to an odd user interface with multiple levels of redundancy. You can turn off the toolbar or the Ribbon-or both, for that matter-but you can't make the interface look anything like its Windows cousin.

(I'm not even going to address the fact that the Office Web Apps have a third variant of the Ribbon interface.)

I attended an Office 2010 workshop in which Microsoft staffers explained how user research taught them that the Ribbon needed to be less visually cluttered than the original version, which is why the 2010 edition removed the outlines from icons. The developers of Office 2011 appear to have ignored this research.

With Mac apps, the assumption is always that users want interfaces that are "Mac-like" rather than warmed-over Windows. (Microsoft's press story touches on this.) That certainly explains some of the disparity between the Offices, but not all of it. It's fascinating, for instance, to compare Outlook 2011 for Mac's interface for adding accounts with the one in Outlook 2010 for Windows.

Mac:

Windows:

They're fundamentally different, and each has its pros and cons. Windows salts too many features away in dialog boxes and tabs, but has a handy button for testing settings before you finalize them; Mac is better-organized, but doesn't have the test button. What you really want is something that combines the best aspects of both.

Ultimately, I think the people who design Office for Mac have a huge, not-entirely-solvable challenge. They need to make programs that feel like Mac programs. They need to make programs that feel like Office. And even when they come up with better ways of doing things, any time they change anything in a new version they run the risk of ticking off and/or confusion people who are familiar with the old one.

Maybe that helps explain why reactions to Office 2011 vary so. Macworld's reviewers are enthusiastic (here's the evaluation of Word); the New York Times' David Pogue finds it a major disappointment.

And me, an agnostic computer user who travels back and forth between Mac and Windows all the time? I like Office 2011 a lot more than its predecessor, but psssst: If Microsoft decided to blow away Office for the Mac and replace it with something that resembled the Windows version-at least as much as Photoshop for Macintosh and Photoshop for Windows resemble each other, say-I'd be even happier.

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