Microsoft's relationship with Apple never has been cozy, but the release of Office 2008 seems to have solidified the two and their working relationship for the foreseeable future.
Office has become the ubiquitous word processing and spreadsheet application out there, and nearly all corporate presentations are made in PowerPoint as well. Apple is trying to make inroads with its new IWork version, but it has some limitations. The word processor is fine for most users, and Keynote, the presentation software, is quite elegant if you are assured you are going to be making the presentation with Apple hardware. (The Apple spreadsheet is not ready for corporate use, however.)
With Office 2008, however, Microsoft has upped the ante. Office 2004, the former version, had been getting long in the tooth, and the new one has arrived just in time. The most striking thing to me is how much Office 2008 has adopted the look and feel of OS X and how much it feels like an Apple product instead of a Microsoft product ported to Apple hardware.
Many new features, like the Formatting Palette in Word, puts a lot of great stuff right at your mouse click. Styles, bullets, alignment it's all there. The best feature for students is the new Citations Palette that makes management of citations and bibliographies in research papers. Word also features a great new "Publishing Layout View" that makes desktop publishing a snap (finally!) with Word. This clearly is a response to Apple's clearly better "Pages" application, but Office 2008 delivers. If you want a simple newsletter or school report creator, this is your baby.
Excel adds the Formula Builder panel and numerous design improvements, but there wasn't a whole lot to improve, frankly. If you're into numbers, Excel is your baby. I find the PC version easier to use, but I am much more used to that version. I think given enough time, I would be equally at home here.
The Apple version of Office does not come with Outlook, the excellent e-mail client for Windows, but rather substitutes Entourage. I like Entourage, which also can sync with local ISPs or corporate Exchange e-mail systems. People either love Entourage or hate it; the latter crowd ends up with Apple's native e-mail client or something like Thunderbird, but those who like it really tend to like it, especially if they have used something like Outlook before. It is much more than an e-mail tool; it also is a day planner and a powerful task builder as well.
It's not all perfect in the Office world, however. Microsoft removed Visual Basic for Applications from Office 2008, which won't impact consumers at all, but some corporate users and developers are pretty upset about it. Virtual PC also has been dropped, which is OK given the other options for running Windows on Apples these days, including Boot Camp.Office 2008 requires OS X 10.4.9 or higher and at least 512 MB of RAM (more is better.) A 1 Ghz G4 processor is best. It comes in several versions, including a low-cost version for students and teachers.
James Derk is owner of CyberDads, a computer repair firm, and tech columnist for Scripps Howard News Service. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.