Office for Mac 2011 – One year in the real world

Office Mac 2011 IconsAs a relative newcomer to the Mac, my perspective is that of a switcher. As I blogged at the time, I was originally attracted to the beautiful and affordable hardware but couldn’t conceive of a scenario where I’d actually run any OS other than Windows. My work is for a software consulting firm that works in the Microsoft space, so compatibility with my coworkers—and appearances in front of clients—was a significant factor. As previously told, OS X really sold me with its elegance and stability, and even though I tried running my MacBook with just Windows for a while, I found the driver support to be lacking in sophistication (Apple’s hardware driver support for Windows, while there, isn’t designed to run the pretty hardware at its best).

For the first year or so after buying my Mac, I opted for a ‘dual life.’ My web life—blogging, surfing, personal email, banking, Twitter, Facebook, etc.—took place on the Mac. And my work life happened inside a Windows 7 Professional virtual machine in Parallels. Realistically, the MacBook was fast enough to handle this with aplomb, and it was kind of practical in a variety of ways (for example, I could ‘switch off’ my work life at the end of the day).

I obtained and installed Microsoft Office 2008 for Mac, but—truth be told—it was about on par with Office 2003 for Windows. The main applications worked okay but were nothing spectacular and Entourage was simply a terrible excuse for an Outlook replacement. It wasn’t even particularly good as a POP3/IMAP email client. And while it was occasionally handy to use Word or Excel natively on the Mac (when it was too tedious to fire up the VM), Office 2008 basically just took up space in the netherworld of software-installed-but-not-committed-to.

Not that anything else replaced it, at least not any native OS X applications. iWork—though Mac people swear by it—felt a little like “Office for children” (can’t really say it any other way). The oftentimes militant public support that Mac people will profess for these applications can only be explained by a certain lack of familiarity of how work in an office—any modern office that’s not a design studio or one-person consulting firm—actually gets done. Sure, they look nice. And they seem to be stable. But they provide none of the advanced features that make collaborating on digital documents somewhat do-able. Yes, I can open some Microsoft Office formatted documents in iWork, but then I can’t really do anything much more than perform basic editing functions. None of the document review features work, none of the styles are the same (or function the same), etc. Now I understand that some would suggest that MS Office suffers from rampant featurism and therefore cannot be the yardstick for measuring all other contenders. But featurism or not, it has become—for better or worse—the de facto standard. It is what 90% of office workers use to compose, edit and circulate documents. And documents make up 75% of most knowledge workers’ work.

Here’s why one might choose to use Microsoft Office for Mac 2011:

  • Outlook, because despite Apple’s best efforts to make Mail.app Exchange Server compatible, it’s still not as integrated with common business scenarios as Outlook and doesn’t have integrated contacts, tasks, or a calendar (I understand some of those things come separately on the Mac).
  • Word, because things like consistent styles, formatting options and the document review functionality aren’t optional features when you’re trying to work in a modern office.
  • Excel, because it is how business numbers are crunched, like it or not.
  • Lync (this is an enterprise distribution only client for Microsoft’s software phone/VOIP/messaging platform) with Outlook integration, because if your office—like mine—only offers you a software phone line, you don’t really have a choice.
  • (PowerPoint, for me, is a bit of an afterthought. I know there are some very strong—and possibly correct—opinions out there that suggest Keynote.app might actually have the advantage here.)

Some thoughts about each individual Office for Mac 2011 application, one year into the journey:

Outlook:Mac 2011

Outlook for Mac 2011

Outlook for Mac 2011, with Lync online meeting integration

Outlook on the Mac is great, plain and simple. I’m not advocating it for any purpose other than as an Exchange Server client with full Lync telephony/presence integration. If you don’t have those things in your office environment, I’m sure you can find something more native to the Mac that’ll serve you better (or just use Gmail on the web, like everybody else). But if you’re required to use Exchange, Outlook for Mac 2011 works great. There are some (minor) foibles that could and should be addressed by Microsoft: the behaviour of signatures is strange when compared to how it works in Office 2010 for Windows. It would be nice if the “out of the box” message formatting could be exactly like it is in the Windows version and I didn’t have to laboriously try to approximate how to make my messages look acceptable to the rest of the world. And I’m not 100% sure I understand why, when I have Outlook open on my Mac and on Windows (next to each other), messages arrive 30 seconds earlier in Windows than on the Mac. But all in all, it’s more than usable, has an appropriate number of configuration options, and works stably.

Word:Mac 2011

Word for Mac 2011

Word for Mac 2011, with inexplicable dual toolbar/ribbon

Word, ironically, has taken longer to get used to than Outlook on the Mac. I don’t know to what exact extent Microsoft re-wrote Word for this version of Office, but if I had to guess I’d say it’s 90% new code. It works, and works well most of the time, and—importantly—provides almost all of the features of its big brother on Windows. Unfortunately, it was initially plagued by stability issues, and there were a few months after the launch of Office 2011 when “auto-updates” would be shipped pretty frequently. This improved Word’s stability considerably over the course of the year: I would say we’re about 90% of the way to achieving the same amount of reliability that the Windows version has. Still, I get crashes on obvious activities far too frequently, and the recovery is graceful only about 50% of the time in terms of document preservation. I will say that this doesn’t affect me in my day-to-day usage because I’m a conscientious document-saver, but it’s a little irritating, and it occurs mainly in boundary cases that QA simply hasn’t gotten to with any consistency yet. (Example: I always repeat the first row of a table automatically if the table splits across multiple pages. Recently, I tried to ‘edit’ one of these automatically repeated rows instead of the one at the top of the table and Word crashed.) But in the greater scheme of things, Word 2011 works and (mostly) works well.

Excel:Mac 2011

Excel for Mac 2011

Excel for Mac 2011, with hidden AutoSum icon

Excel seems stable and reliable. Functionally, it is more or less on par with the Windows version. I have to admit that I don’t crunch very large or complex sets of numbers, nor do I connect it to external data sources with any frequency, so if you’re a serious Excel user, your mileage may vary. But I use Excel frequently and have found it to be reliable. As with all of the Office for Mac 2011 applications, I find the “dual tool bar” confusing and unnecessary: I don’t fully understand why the command buttons aren’t on the same part of the Office ribbons on both platforms. Instead, the AutoSum function is on a toolbar above the ribbon. It’s as if the Microsoft product planners couldn’t let go of their beloved toolbars, and instead decided to divide the commands between the new-style ribbon and the old-style toolbar. On day 1, I literally searched for the AutoSum icon for 20 minutes. I would say the next version could clean up the consistency aspects a lot more between the two platforms, because—I assume—they’ve done the usability lab testing on the Windows platform and determined that that’s the best layout. (That sound you just heard? Doors slamming because the Mac business unit at Microsoft just figured out they have usability labs, and they’re quickly going to usability-test Office for Mac 2011.)

PowerPoint:Mac 2011

This one’s pretty good, actually. It’s the least-used of the apps on my Mac, but whenever I’ve had the occasion it’s been reliable and full-featured. I have yet to discover anything I can’t do with the Mac version that I can do on Windows. With the exception of the dual toolbar/ribbon problem (see above), which is just as confused in PowerPoint as it is everywhere else, it’s pretty great. I personally never warmed to Keynote so I don’t have a particularly sophisticated take on how it compares, but I think it’s reasonable to assume they have feature parity, and at the end of the day, it’s just a matter of preference.

Microsoft Document Connection

Document Connection 2011

Document Connection 2011, shown with typical result

Where to start? This thing is an unmitigated disaster. It’s terrible. But let’s start at the beginning: what is it? Document Connection is a workaround disguised as an Office application. The problem it’s trying to address is that Microsoft’s other teams (the SharePoint team and the people who wrote SkyDrive, Microsoft’s attempt at copying Dropbox) still really don’t care at all about Mac users. To get a ‘full’ SharePoint collaboration experience on the Mac basically requires you to run Safari or Firefox, and even then you don’t really get the full  integration possible on Windows. This is partially true because to this day, Microsoft insists of using ActiveX for certain on-screen functionality in SharePoint. But more importantly, Microsoft’s lack of ability to control the end-to-end integration between the individual Office apps and a SharePoint backend library or list on OS X doesn’t really allow it to offer the same user experience that’s available on Windows. So all those infrequently-used but definitely nifty features like metadata integrated into the Word ribbon? Doesn’t work on the Mac. Uploading multiple documents to a SharePoint library at the same time? Not so much.

So instead of committing to re-writing those SharePoint controls in a standards-compliant way and making them available on all browsers and platforms, Microsoft decided to offer a workaround that doesn’t really fix many of the problems it sets out to fix. In addition to being a ‘SharePoint client’ it’s also a SkyDrive client. In each case, it basically offers drag and drop file upload capabilities and basic check in/check out of files. It cannot connect to most SharePoint sites I’ve tried to connect it to (and I have a lot of SharePoint sites to try it out with). I have no idea why, and it offers no troubleshooting clues in its error messages. It’s not worth the money you paid for it, even if you got it for free when you bought Office. Rapidly, I think, this will prove to be Office 2011′s Achilles heel. The Office for Mac team has significantly upped the overall ante in terms of platform interoperability, but its ability to do the same thing for SharePoint/Mac compatibility is severely limited, and the resulting product is—to put it mildly—not very good. Or very useful.

Lync:Mac 2011

Lync for Mac 2011

Lync for Mac 2011

When Hunter from our IT group (a fellow Mac user in a Windows office) came to me with the news that there was finally a proper Lync client for the Mac, available through our Microsoft volume licensing, it felt a bit like Christmas. Okay, maybe not exactly like Christmas. But it was a pretty cool moment. Prior to October 2011, Mac users had to use Microsoft Communicator, which worked okay for some purposes (it supported voice, text messenger and screen sharing) but crucially did not provide any Outlook calendar integration, so none of that fancy “Click here to attend meeting” stuff would work on the Mac. And in Communicator, for some inexplicable reason, you had to dial phone numbers manually, which was a daily annoyance. It’s only been a week or three since its release, but so far, the Outlook integration works reliably, I really appreciate the ability to create “Online Meetings” directly from within Outlook, and screen sharing and all the other LiveMeeting stuff is excellent. For those of us who are trying to be Mac users in a Microsoft-based enterprise computing environment, this may well prove to be the clincher. There were some initial hiccups where we couldn’t get Lync 2011 to connect to our Communications Server from anywhere but inside our corporate network, but that issue has since been resolved (by changing my DNS settings to Google’s DNS instead of my ISP’s settings). Microsoft has also already sent a software update for Lync 2011 (what, precisely, was in it is a bit of a mystery), so it looks like the team is engaged in trying to iron out the early issues.

* * *

My decision to use a Mac in an office that’s otherwise 99% Windows-based is certainly unusual. But with the advent of Office 2011, at least it’s no longer a decision that puts me at a real disadvantage. I say ‘real’ because two other applications from the extended Office family on Windows are still missing from Office for Mac: Project and Visio. I know there are Mac world equivalents from independent vendors out there, but I would really like to see Microsoft push to close the gap completely, so I’m not entertaining any notions of spending more of my own money to see if I can buy something that’s ‘good enough’ and might be compatible with the Windows versions.

Apart from the missing Project and Visio, the penultimate disadvantage to using Office on the Mac only disappeared in October of 2011, approximately one year into the journey, when Microsoft finally released a native Lync client for OS X, which—delightfully—is the equivalent of its Windows counterpart.

So the final frontier remains the lack of SharePoint integration on the Mac. This can be addressed in one of three possible ways; listed from the most absurd to the least absurd:

  • Create another version of Internet Explorer for OS X that supports ActiveX and natively provides the same SharePoint user experience we know from Windows;
  • Ship a vastly improved client application that properly and reliably supports all the functions Windows users get natively;
  • Focus the SharePoint team on standards-compliance, essentially making the user experience the same regardless of the browser or computing platform used.

I know what I’d vote for. But I’m not a product planner at Microsoft. Here’s hoping one of them reads this and takes it on. It’s important, not for the 5% of enterprise users running Macs, but because SharePoint deserves to get a truly desktop-independent shot at the market.

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6 Responses to Office for Mac 2011 – One year in the real world

  1. Justin November 1, 2011 at 9:53 am #

    Great post. I’m in the same boat as you: a consultant with a Mac working in a corporate Microsoft environment.

    The question I have for you is: do you still boot into Windows on your Mac when at a client ?

  2. Carsten Knoch November 1, 2011 at 2:48 pm #

    Mostly, I don’t. I do it only when I need to (a) really use SharePoint, (b) use Project or (c) use Visio. And I don’t dual-boot but use a virtual machine instead. I find it faster.

  3. Justin November 2, 2011 at 6:32 am #

    Thanks for the reply.. The office supplies me with a Dell but I’m really tempted to give it a try with my new MBP 15″.. My concern is being able to upload/download documents from Sharepoint and being able to actually enter my timesheet into OWA !

    Thanks again for the post.

  4. tim aliev April 20, 2012 at 12:56 pm #

    Thanks for the info, switched to Mac myself about 6 months ago and have been thinking about getting MS Office for Mac. Very useful post.

  5. TH December 24, 2012 at 1:12 am #

    Thank you for the throughout review. I’m considering switching to mac and is wondering if I can still cooperate smoothly with my coworkers. This really helps!

  6. Joris June 20, 2013 at 10:34 am #

    Thank you for this piece. I was really wondering what disadvantages Office for Mac really had. I heard complaints, but it isn’t as bad as with Windows on a MBP.

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