Virtualization and Microsoft Office?


With the Mac-web in a tizzy about Boot Camp (and also the very interesting Virtualization software Parallels Workstation released shortly thereafter), a question again comes to mind that I’ve been wondering about for a while, but which recent events make all the more relevant.

A few weeks ago Microsoft released an interesting video (warning: Windows Media) profiling the upcoming Office 12 (for Windows), especially a newly designed UI called the “ribbon.” I am actually quite curious to see how well this is going to work in its own right, but as a Mac user I was stuck (as with the Aero interface in Vista) by how much Microsoft is trying (and failing) to capture some of the “lickable” quality that OS X users know and love. Back at MWSF when the Intel Macs were introduced Microsoft’s Macintosh Business Unit (MBU) again assured Mac users of five more years of support. However, now that Windows is running on Mac hardware, the entire Mac line-up will be Intel this year, a practical virtualization solution is available, and Microsoft apparently still working on porting Virtual PC, does it not seem increasingly possible that the suits at Microsoft might not simply cancel Office for Mac as an independent product?

Instead of developing Office for Mac as a stand alone product, if I’m Microsoft it seems like I have every incentive just to bundle Office for Windows with my newly released Virtual PC software and call it a day. I suspect that so long as it ran reasonably well, Mac users would still have to run Word, Excel, etc. to maintain compatibility with the Windows world, and Microsoft would save a ton of money on developing Office for Mac, while more or less maintaining their strangle-hold on the Mac office-suite market. It seems like a win-win for Microsoft, with only Office for Mac users left out in the cold.

This post is pure speculation; I have no inside knowledge whatsoever. But particularly if the new Virtual PC supports rootless windows (as it is almost certain to do), I can hardly see why Microsoft would not go in this direction, if not for the next version of Office for Mac (since there remains a large PowerPC market), then for the next one. What do you think?



The MacBU is a not a cost-centre for Microsoft, it’s a profit centre. Something like #7 software company in the world, if ranked by itself. It is fairly autonomous from the Windows franchise. I doubt Microsoft has any beancounters or clueless execs that say, let’s just make those Mac users run our Windows product on OS X now that its got an x86 processor.

I lived the Word 6.0 fiasco. I still load it up to show folks the difference. Long Live Word 5.1!


Don, I don’t quite understand your reasoning when you say you’re going to go get a cheap PC when your G4 dies. I mean even if this scenario I’ve laid out comes to pass, an Intel Mac is STILL A MAC, even if it is capable of Virtualization/Dual Booting (in fact, I’m writing this in OS X on MY Intel Mac on which I’ve got both Parallels and Boot Camp installed). So unless all you do with your Mac is run MS Office (which given your highly negative attitude toward Mr. Gates seems unlikely) then I think you can probably just ignore the Dual Boot/Virtualization stuff and continue to use your Mac in OS X (Leopard or following) as you do now. No need to do something as masochistic as going out and getting a PC!

I for one would very much welcome Apple’s develepment of iWork in a real competitor for Office. From the reviews I’ve read it does seem that Pages 2 is a considerable improvement over version 1 but still needs a lot of work. Maybe Alex is right that in 5 years (iWork `11?) it will be 90% of Word. If so, if it could genuinely pull off transparent compatibility with Word DOCs in both directions (i.e. opening and saving), then I’m all for it and would definitely use it.


Don, I think that you’ve forgotten the most important piece of this puzzle: Apple. While Apple is primarily a hardware company, they are still a force to be reckoned with when it comes to software. When it feels that a key area of software is being neglected by a developer, Apple has shown never the slightest hesistation to release a product in that area and exterminate the slowly developed product, capturing that market for itself, as well as the profit to be had from said market. Remember Adobe Premiere? So Microsoft could own the market that they have through active development, or should they slow down the pace, Apple could swoop in and leave them with nothing.

Is Pages ready to become a Word replacement? No, but rumors have been rife that Apple has a spreadsheet program (the fabled “Numbers”) and they did acquire a firm (SchemaSoft) from Vancouver BC last year that specialized in translating MS format documents. Might it be that Apple is positioning itself to eliminate MS Office from the Mac should MS abandon Office from Mac. Let’s face it, who really likes Office for Mac? The interface is a shambling disaster! And it does crash (or refuse to save changes) at really inappropriate times. But we use it because it has become the de facto standard. Wouldn’t we consider something better if it came along and it was 99.99% compatible with a smoother work flow?

As I see it, MS can carry on developing a very profitable product, or risk losing the whole ball of wax to Apple. Why has it not happened to date? Because Apple doesn’t want to make the expenditure to develop and maintain it fully unless they must. But if they must because MS forces their hand, I think they will.

Don Robinson

You guys are drinking the Kool Aid. Bill Gates is probably stealing candy from some children at some day school as we speak. All MS has to do now is put some exciting new upgrades and improvements into Office for Windows and not upgrade Office for Mac and over time the Mac version dies. Why would Gates care which division gets the sale? He saves the development costs and he gets to sell Windows to a new market-Mac users. Let’s see now, continue to develop Mac software which Mac users can use on their machines without Windows, or put all improvements into Windows based software and force Mac users to buy Windows as well as Office. One of your respondants says that the Mac market is getting larger. Great, all Bill needs to do is wait and he gets to sell even more Windows. He doesn’t care what platform you run Windows on. Over time the Mac becomes a high price-point Windows machine. As for me I’ll run my G-4 until the wheels fall off, and then I’ll go to Costco and buy the cheapest Windows machine I can find.


Agree with davidwb. While the scenario outline above makes theoretical sense, it doesn’t jive with reality. Mainly, Microsoft has a lot of paying Mac customers and it would be extremely foolish to piss off that many customers with an act so callous and foolish as requiring Mac customers to run Office in Virtual PC.

First of all, you’re only talking about a tiny fraction of Mac users who will even have machines capable of running an Intel VPC (the current PowerPC version is way too slow to make Office usuable on a daily basis). So you go from selling to nearly 100% of the Mac installed base to selling a product to just 5% of the installed base. Sorry, doesn’t make ANY sense.

Secondly, Microsoft is in the business of making money, and the MacBU is extremely profitable. In fact, the MacBU is so profitable that it was rolled into the non-profitable Games division in the last reorg, to boost the numbers of Microsoft’s games efforts. Again, you don’t do something like pissing off your well-paying customers by giving them a product they don’t want.

Sorry, but Microsoft’s Mac products are too profitable to be given the axe. The only way it will happen is Mac users stop buying the software, but that shouldn’t happen when Mac marketshare is increasing.

Frank Bruno

Good points, Mat. Couple of thoughts come to mind:

First, you write, “suppose it could be made transparent to the user.” Well, great! If they make it that slick, then there’s no problem, right?

Also, you say that Word for Mac is a mediocre product, or at least “very, very annoying.” And I agree.

So it seems that your concern is that Boot Camp will give MS an excuse to make it an even MORE mediocre experience. And my response would be that if it gets any more mediocre, then it will face some real competition in the Mac market. The reason that no other word processor has made any inroads is precisely because Word is a borderline-tolerable product.

So my guess is that either they figure out how to do virtualization so that it’s no worse than the current offerings, or they won’t do it.

But hey, all word processors are going to be web-based in a few years anyway, so this is all… academic, right? :)


But suppose it could be made transparent to the user. You double click and Word opens, automatically firing up the Virtualization layer transparently to the user. In other words, from an end user perspective it wouldn’t be all that different, though it may take a bit longer for Word to open. Hell, the Virtualization layer need not even be a separate product like Virtual PC, but could be rolled in Office for Mac.

If anybody were going to step up to the plate to put in place a viable competitor to Word, et. al., I think it would have already happened. I use Word all the time, and it can be very, very annoying. However, I don’t feel like I can change to anything else because in my field trading papers in Word’s DOC format is (unfortunately) standard. I’m sure it’s the same in many other fields and in business.

I’m trying to look at this from a business standpoint. I think MS might very well do this if they could save a huge amount of money on development, and then be able to turn around and say to Mac users–look we’re giving you perfect compatibility to the Windows world precisely because you’re running the same software. I agree that the experience would kind of suck, but I just don’t think there’s anybody out there as a potential competitor that would make MS afraid of losing significant market-share. Furthermore, EVEN IF they lost a little market-share, that might be out-weighed by significantly lower development costs. From what I’ve seen so far it’s definitely not Pages (or Mellel or Nissus, etc. etc.).

Frank Bruno

Except for the fact that Microsoft makes gobs of money selling Office for Mac, and they’d be shooting themselves in the foot, right? It would be a terrible experience, and the profitable MacBU has every interest in keeping Mac customers happy.

Imagine: An e-mail arrives in your Apple inbox with a MS word attachment. You double click on it and either (a) nothing happens until you copy it to your PC partition (explain that to Grandma Mac user!) or, at best, (b), you wait for Virtual PC and Virtual MacOffice to fire up and display the doc. Doesn’t that sound horrible? Why would Microsoft do that to its millions of Mac customers?

That’s the great thing about markets. Apple’s marketshare is expanding, and with it comes more desire to design Mac apps. Yeah, you could tell your Mac customers “Just use Virtualization,” but your competitor would then see an opening to provide a better experience by designing Mac-native software. Granted that’s hard with MS and the proprietary .doc format, but it’s not impossible. The more hermetically sealed-off Microsoft makes itself, the more vulnerable it is. And I think they know that. Look at Firefox’s success: people like standards.


You obviously weren’t around for the Word 6 fiasco. Mac users aren’t going to accept such an arrangement. The fastest way for Microsoft to become the #2 word processor in the Mac world is to use your idea. Even Microsoft isn’t that dumb.


Which would also explain Pages and Keynote. If Office XML is open enough, or if Apple can mimic the import capabilities of Open Office – then no Word/Excel/Keynote for OS X is not that big of a deal. In 5 years, Pages could really be 90% of Word – and Keynote already rocks Powerpoints mic. The spreadsheet is missing, of course…

Entourage is another matter – but if you’re really dependent on an Exchange server, I’m betting that you’ll either run virtualized or web versions of Outlook.

This is the bummer about the whole Boot Camp and upcoming virtualization. It’s great if you want to play games, but it’s going to make it much more difficult for the corporate mac to justify using OS X in a mixed OS environment environment. We, the corporate exceptions, the people who use Macs for work that isn’t design/education, already have to jump through hoops to justify OS X. How are we going to counter the argument made by the policy maker – “You’re just going to run Windows on it anyway, so here’s your Dell”?

Comments are closed.