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Microsoft’s Macintosh Business Unit on Jan. 9 unveiled an early version of Office 2008, the first update to Office for the Mac in nearly three years.

It appears that the MacBU has put a lot of work into it. Whether all that work will make Office 2008 “better” than the current version—or, even, better than Word 5.1—is a harder call.

Due in the second half of 2007, the suite will be a Universal Binary, which means it’s an automatic buy for owners of Intel-based Macs. Microsoft doesn’t offer a clear explanation as to why it’s called Office 2008 rather than 2007.

Both Word 2008 and Excel 2008 are supposed to be fully compatible with Office 2007, with Word 2008 using the OpenXML file format.

Click here to read IBM’s recent introduction of Lotus Notes for Mac OS X.

Thus cross-platform workers may find this a necessary upgrade—though Microsoft has said it will provide “converters” so that the current Mac Office will be able to open and save Office 2007-compatibile files. Beta versions of the converters should be available “in the spring.”

However, Office 2008 will not support Visual Basic. Though Microsoft and Apple are working to replicate that functionality via AppleScript, the lack of VB will put a full stop to some business users’ thoughts of upgrading.

Moreover, perhaps due to a lingering scent of Vista permeating all of Microsoft, Office 2008 is chock-full of eye candy, to a distracting degree. Some buttons actually ripple when you click them and tabs change color when the cursor passes over them. Highlights are color-coded to the application, not to the OS, and so on. It seems that in some big meeting, the words Branding and Identity triumphed over User.

Like its Windows cousin, Office 2008 has undergone some interface revisions. “It’s not [Office 2007’s] ribbon per se,” said Geoff Price, the product unit manager for the MacBU. Microsoft representatives declined to say what minimum system requirements—for a word processor—would be.

Overall, the new look seems to aim at something like the Unified UI in some Apple applications, such as Mail or iTunes. Tool bars, instead of floating freely, are integrated into the Office application’s document window, in sort of a Window-ish way. Icon buttons are bigger and rarer, which does simplify things a bit, though at the cost of hiding some tools.

The new Element Gallery, which might be kin to Office 2007’s ribbon, can offer quick access to commonly used, um, elements. The Gallery’s tabs make it easy to find a selection of chart templates, which you can place into your Word document, but at a price.

Much may change before the final version, but there are some weird behaviors in this Element Gallery. First, the Gallery’s tabs change color not just when you click on them, but when your cursor hovers over them.

This happens with Mail’s toolbar buttons, too, but in Office 2008, the hover color is the same as the default color of the left-most tab—meaning that you’ll see two tabs that look selected. This also happens with buttons in the Inspector Palette.

Second, when you click on a tab, the Element Gallery expands downward to show you templates. This means that your document gets shoved south, even potentially pushing the part you were working on off-screen. I’m not a big fan of things I’m supposed to be clicking on or editing moving without my direct action.

And it is distracting, not just for graphics professionals, that Word 2008 uses blue highlights in its palette, while Excel 2008 uses green, PowerPoint 2008 red, and so on. This is totally non-standard UI design, and a case of wanting to make sure you know you’re using PowerPoint rather than just letting you do so. A Microsoft representative said that the colors are not final and could change based on user feedback.

Speaking of PowerPoint, it looks like Apple’s iWork suite, with its Keynote presentation and Pages layout applications, have put some pressure on Microsoft.

PowerPoint 2008 will have a new graphics engine, with full OpenGL support—the same engine that’s in Office 2007—to more ably counter the smooth effects in Apple’s Keynote. Details are scarce at the moment on exactly the feature set, as well as on Smart Art, PowerPoint’s Visio-like feature. If the latter works well, with clean-looking and adjustable hierarchical charts, PowerPoint 2008 will have a compelling feature.

Word 2008 has similarly felt iWork Pages breathing down its neck. Pages, though not suited for long or collaborative documents, makes it easy to drag-and-drop text and images and produce professional-looking documents.

In response, Word 2008 features the Publishing Layout View, which does much as Pages does—allows users to drag and drop images, drag text around and use templates to make brochures, newsletters and the like. It does one-up Pages 2.0 (from the iWork ’06 suite) in that you can link text boxes and flow text, much like in Quark.

But isn’t it backward to buy a multi-hundred-dollar application, let alone an even-more-expensive suite, to get simplicity as another added feature? No wonder the “Bring Back Word 5.1” movement is growing.

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