Microsoft has just begun to issue Beta versions of the next iteration of its Office for Mac software to testers, and claims that it’s still on track to release the new version of its productivity software in January next year. We took a look at Microsoft's next-generation Office software for Apple Macs - here's our review:

It’s about time Microsoft updated Office for the Mac. Three years have passed since Microsoft launched Office 2004 for Mac. That suite of applications debuted back in the spring of that year and a lot has happened since.

Apple’s own Apple iWork suite was launched in January 2005, bringing together year-old Keynote and the new desktop-publishing application, Pages, into one package. While the collection did offer excellent integration with Apple’s iLife tools, it didn’t include spreadsheet, database or drawing tools, so couldn’t really be positioned as a competitor to Microsoft’s industry-standard Microsoft Office for Mac software.

Then in October 2006 Google launched Google Docs & Spreadsheets. Google Docs is a free, web-based word processor and spreadsheet application that enables users to create and edit documents online and also collaborate with other users. A presentation application is expected to launch this summer, further positioning the collection of applications as a competitor to Office.

The other significant change is Apple’s move to Intel processors. This colossal modification has seen Macs enjoy a surge in popularity as tools such as Boot Camp and virtualisation software such as Parallels have invalidated the incompatibility excuse and enticed die-hard Windows fans on to the platform.

The move to Intel processors is one key reason for the delay in getting the next version of Office ready for Mac users. Microsoft developers have had to rewrite much of the Microsoft Office 2008 for Mac code from the ground up for it to run on the Intel-driven Macs.

Office 2004 is not available in Universal binaries, so for now running Microsoft Office 2008 for Mac on an Intel-powered Mac requires Rosetta. This technology runs in the background, translating the code into something that the Intel processor understands. Under Rosetta, Microsoft Office 2008 for Mac is usable, although some lag has been seen in actions such as scrolling through large documents. Luckily, the processors are so fast that no real loss of productivity is seen when compared to PowerPC Macs.

When Microsoft Office 2008 for Mac isn’t running through the Rosetta translator we expect to see astronomical speed increases, and reports indicate that the new version runs at unprecedented speeds. Sheridan Jones, group marketing manager for the Microsoft Macintosh Business Unit, told us: “I’m really impressed with the speed of the Intel version, especially with graphics intensive tasks.”

It’s not just the speed of Microsoft Office 2008 for Mac that has us excited, however. We've had a look at some of the new features we can expect to see in the new version of the Microsoft Office 2008 for Mac productivity suite, all of which should make the applications more accessible, and some of which, you will be able to boast to your PC-using friends, are Mac-only.

Publishing layout view

One of the most exciting Mac-only features is Microsoft Office 2008 for Mac's new Publishing Layout View. This feature adds DTP (desktop publishing) style page layout capabilities to Word, including automatic reflow of text boxes and easy to use templates for creating content rich documents such as newsletters, fliers and brochures.

The tool integrates with iPhoto to make it possible to simply drag-and-drop images directly on to the page. Automatic text run-around ensures the finished product looks professional as text flows around the images.

Similarly, excess copy is automatically flowed into a linked text box that can be placed elsewhere on that page or the next. The automatic reflow of text is one of the most impressive features, all the more impressive for its not being included in the Windows version of Microsoft Office 2008.

In previewing these features Microsoft emphasised that many of them are already available in Word, but that the philosophy behind the new iteration is to make such features "more discoverable".

Elements Gallery

The new Elements Gallery user interface is one way in which Microsoft intends to make elements of the Office suite easier to discover. “Part of our mission with Microsoft Office 2008 for Mac is to expose all the things that are already there and make the product easier to use,” explained Jones.

The new interface – made possible by Microsoft’s cross-platform graphics engine called Office Art 2.0 – emphasises discoverability and gives quick access to tools and Mac-specific features within applications. It borrows the idea from the Ribbon in the Windows version of Office 2007, but with some subtle differences.

In Office 2007 for Windows the Ribbon completely replaces the menus and toolbars. Microsoft decided early on that it would not do away with menus and toolbars in the Mac version – reports indicate that early consumer research found that Mac users were not happy to lose the toolbars. Instead the Mac version includes a floating Inspector pane that combines the formatting palette and toolbox into a single pane that appears and vanishes with a Dock-like ‘Genie effect’. Similarly, a set of tabs under the toolbar expand when selected, giving access to options like templates in Word’s Publishing Layout View.

Document Parts is another usability feature. This automates some of the most common document tasks, such as adding a table of contents or headers and footers to documents. The user builds pages by dragging and dropping elements such as headers, footers and cover pages on to the document.

While these interface changes may expose more of the features buried several clicks deep, and hence make it easier to access previously undiscovered features, they do little to minimise the clutter, and in some cases cause duplication, at the top of the screen.

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