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Office for Mac Is Finally a 'First-Class Citizen'

Office for Mac -- long lagging behind its Windows cousin in features -- has essentially gained parity in the new 2016 edition.


For many years — even when the rivalry between the two companies was at its hottest — Microsoft has produced a native version of its Office suite for Apple’s Macintosh computers, something Apple has welcomed.

Until roughly two years ago, Microsoft had deployed a separate, independent, Apple-focused team to handle Office for Mac, with development help from Apple, and the product had a Mac look and feel. But it was typically behind its Windows cousin in features, and was on a different update cycle from Office for Windows.

That’s all changed now. Microsoft brought out Office 2016 for Mac last week, and it’s essentially a clone of the Windows desktop version of Office. To emphasize the point, the naming has advanced five years from the last Mac version — Office 2011 — to match the forthcoming Windows desktop version, Office 2016, due later this year.

 PowerPoint in the new Office for Mac 2016
PowerPoint in the new Office for Mac 2016

From the point of view of feature parity and user-interface consistency, this is a good thing — especially for the 75 percent of Office users who Microsoft claims use it on both Windows and Mac. Microsoft says the software is now a “first-class citizen” in the Office world. One manager even bragged to me that the new version would make people at “Goldman Sachs” happy.

But except for a few Mac-only features that mostly are about meeting the Mac’s standards for apps, there’s nothing especially “Mac-like” about this version of office. So longtime Office for Mac users will face a learning curve.

I’ve been testing Office for Mac 2016 for about a week; in fact, I’m writing this column using part of the suite, Word 2016. As a longtime Word user, I found most things familiar, and those that have changed were pretty easy to master. I liked it. Aside from Outlook, which still feels stuck back in 2010, I had a good experience with the new suite.

For now, the new Office 2016 for Mac is available only via an Office 365 subscription. These start at $70 a year for one PC or Mac, plus one phone and one tablet and a terabyte of storage on OneDrive, Microsoft’s cloud service. For $100 a year, you get to install the latest version of Office on five PCs or Macs; five tablets and five phones; and you get 1TB each for up to five users.

 Excel in the new Office for Mac 2016
Excel in the new Office for Mac 2016

A one-time, non-subscription purchase of the new Mac version will be available in September, but Microsoft isn’t saying what it will cost.

The Windows-like changes in this version are evident at a glance. For instance, the tabs on the main interface, the “ribbon,” now correspond with those in the Windows version. (You can still hide the ribbon, but you can also do that in Windows.) And comments left in Word and PowerPoint documents by multiple authors or editors are now threaded, as they have been in Windows, so that they are easier to follow.

Microsoft says that even the keyboard shortcuts and functions used by Windows Excel wizards are now fully replicated in the Mac version. However, it concedes that due to differences in the two operating systems, not all macros created in the Windows version will run in the Mac version.

There are also new features for Word, like a new visual-design menu and the ability to take you to where you left off. Among the additions in PowerPoint are support for slide transitions formerly only in the Windows version.

The new Office remains compatible with files created in its predecessors, and vice versa. No new file formats are being introduced.

And because you can save and open files on any of several versions of Office for different platforms, you can work on any document from multiple devices. For instance, I was able to make tweaks in this paragraph from a Windows laptop running Office 2013, and from an iPad running Office for iPad, which is a well-done subset of the PC and Mac versions. Those changes showed up when I returned to the Mac and refreshed the document.

This kind of collaborative writing or editing is done most easily in Office 2016 for Mac if you save your files to OneDrive. But it also works if you just send a file around via email. While the new Mac version, like the iPad version, is built with OneDrive integration, you don’t need to use OneDrive — or any cloud service — with it. You can just store and retrieve files locally.

One more thing: Installing the new Mac version doesn’t wipe out your old version. So you can switch between the two, or run them both at the same time. If you like the new one, you can get rid of the old one to reclaim disk space.

Of course, Microsoft now finds itself competing with some popular free options in the productivity space, notably Google Docs, which many younger users, and even small businesses, prefer. But the company is hoping that with cross-platform parity and integrated cloud and multi-author capability, it can keep the Office cash cow going.

So, what are the Mac-only features Microsoft has preserved in this new version? Well, as in most Mac apps, you can use the platform’s multi-touch gestures for the trackpad. You can enter the Mac’s full-screen view, now very popular. And the new Office suite, which Microsoft says has been rebuilt, now supports Apple’s Retina displays for sharper text and graphics, especially in PowerPoint.

 The new Office for Mac can share files with Office for iPad and iPhone.
The new Office for Mac can share files with Office for iPad and iPhone.

In addition, Mac users can choose to turn off the colored menu bars that Microsoft has adopted on other platforms to distinguish the components of Office — blue for Word, green for Excel, etc.

What didn’t I like about Office for Mac 2016?

First, you can’t customize the toolbar above the ribbon, as you can on Windows. Microsoft says this is coming soon.

More importantly, I had problems setting up Outlook. Microsoft’s main focus in the new Mac version of Outlook was to make it the equal of Windows as a tool for using Exchange, the company’s email, calendar and contacts system that is mainly used by big enterprises. I don’t use Exchange, so I couldn’t test it.

But Outlook was as dumb as a box of bricks when it came to setting up Gmail accounts, or Google Apps accounts used by numerous small businesses. Unlike many other email apps, it has no way to know, or to be told, that these are Google-based accounts. So it makes you set them up manually, with server names, port numbers and so forth. This is just unacceptable in 2015, and Microsoft pledged to me that it would address the issue.

All in all, I’d say that — especially in Word, Excel and PowerPoint — the benefits of parity with Windows outweighs the loss of Mac distinctiveness. But unless you use Exchange, you might want to skip Outlook and use another email client, until Microsoft makes it friendly to people not employed at Goldman Sachs.

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