MACBU INTERVIEW: Office 2008 for Mac fails to deliver full Exchange support

Unlike previous launches of Office for Mac Microsoft didn’t get a walk-on spot during the Steve Jobs keynote. Jobs’ sole mention of the suite took the form of a subtle dig welcoming Office 2008 as “the last of the big apps to go native on Intel” – a factual and seemingly innocuous statement which none the less drew a good chuckle from the audience.

But Microsoft is making the most of Macworld as a vital springboard for the suite. The day prior to Jobs keynote Microsoft held a day-long series of demo session (fittingly titled ‘A Day at the Office’) for Macworld Expo attendees all of whom received a free copy of Office 2008 at the end of the day.

Last night saw the official media launch with a ‘private party’ at the Yerba Buena Centre adjacent to Macworld’s Moscone venue followed by an even more invitation-only ‘Macworld Blast!’ event which Microsoft promises will be “the hottest ticket at Macworld” whatever that means!

But getting back to Office 2008…

We’ve been tracking the suite for almost 18 months starting with our September 2006 scoop that the suite still in alpha and known only by the codename of Office 12 would sport a new UI.

We followed this up in March 2007 with news of Office hitting the beta milestone and revealing the ‘Escher’ graphics engine (which was handed down from Office 2007 for Windows).

The next month we reported on the decision to delay shipping an Office 2004 update to add support for XML documents (the native file format of Office 2007 for Windows) until ‘six to eight weeks’ after the release of Office 2008. We’re still not expecting to see these before the end of March. And we took a stab at predicting the delivery timetable for Office 2008 which proved to be bang on the money with our tip of a January launch.

Now at last Office 2008 has arrived. We’ve already been sufficiently hands-on with Office 2008 to introduce you to the major changes in Word Excel Powerpoint and Entourage. But to date little has been said by Microsoft about Entourage’s interaction with Exchange – most of the focus has been on Entourage as a stand-alone program.

What Entourage can do with Exchange Server 

One of the few exceptions has been that Entourage 2008 now supports the long-overdue ability to send an automated ‘Out of Office’ message (complete with HTML formatting and options for who receives the auto-reply) when used with Exchange 2007.

That’s certainly welcome news but the overall lack of Exchange-friendly features doesn’t cut much ice with the many companies running an Exchange server especially those with a large ‘mixed mode’ population of Windows and Mac systems.

Entourage 2004 has been criticised for failing not only to fully support Exchange to the same degree as Outlook and thus cruel interaction between users of Exchange and Outlook but also because Entourage has yet to see many features which Outlook has enjoyed for years.

The MacBU interview 

Eric Wilfrid: photo by Macfannet Japan

We snared some time with Eric Wilfrid Product Manager for Microsoft’s Macintosh Business Unit (MacBU) and MacBU Entourage developer Andy Ruff and put to them some of the key questions that Entourage 2004 users have been asking for months without answer.

Wilfrid readily admits that in the context of Exchange Entourage 2008 is a little less about surface features and more about what lies under the hood.

“We’ve done a lot of work in performance and stability when working with Exchange which is based on customer feedback that it was one of the most important things to get right in 2008” he told

So the big question: will Entourage 2008 be as fully-featured an Exchange client as Outlook 2007?

“No” says Wilfrid “it won’t match 100% feature-for-feature to Outlook 2007. But we’ve made a lot of progress since 2004 and this has been the next step in our ongoing investment in Exchange support. We’re closing the gap with each release.”

“In that timeframe (between Entourage 2004 and Entourage 2008) we did a pretty major release of Entourage with 2004 SP2” says developer Andy Ross.

“In the initial release our Exchange functionality was basic mail and basic calendaring. We didn’t do delegation we didn’t allow you to open up shared calendars it wasn’t necessarily even that reliable. And we’ve done a lot of work since then so 2004 SP2 which was about two years ago was (in fact) a major release with a lot of functionality added and in 2008 we continue that.”

But is the intention for Entourage to ever be as fully functional an Exchange client as Outlook? “Yes” says Wilfrid assures us. “We’re working on closing the gap and we’re not done. We’re going to keep rolling on with Exchange stuff keep listening to customers about what’s important you can definitely look for more improvements in the future.”

Then we got down to some of the specific issues which have bugged Mac users of Exchange. By and large that pain won’t be disappearing if you upgrade to Entourage 2008.

Will Entourage 2008 allow users to synchronise notes with Exchange server? “No” Wilfrid straightballed.

Can you synchronise tasks with an Exchange server? “No we didn’t get notes or tasks”.

Will Entourage 2008 at least support Exchange public folders so users can view and edit contacts tasks and notes in those folders? “Yes” Wilfrid said.

Outlook currently provides the ability to request that the sender of an email receive a ‘receipt’ when their message is read. Entourage 2004 lacks this – is it present in Entourage 2008? “No there’s no receipt feature.”

Can you view multiple calendars side by side in Entourage 208 which you can in Outlook? “No”.

Entourage 2004 caches all data from the Exchange server onto the Mac’s hard disk which has impact on the Mac’s disk space slows network traffic makes for long sync times and means you can miss just-updated information made between Entourage’s periodic updates.

Outlook for Windows on the other hand supports a useful alternative in ‘online only’ mode which doesn’t cache data but works directly against the server with all data kept on the server rather than caching it all to the hard drive. Will Entourage 2008 also support this online only mode? “No Entourage 2008 doesn’t support that online-only mode” confirmed Wilfrid.

Does Exchange still use a single ‘monolithic’ database for storing all its messages appointments contacts and just about everything else? “Yes Entourage continues to use a single file” Wilfrid said. “But we did a lot of work in 2008 to improve its reliability and performance and even in the process that you do hit a crash or some corruption happens we did a lot of work to make sure that the rebuild process recovers a lot more of the data. It used to be that projects and categories and links used to be something you could lose in that process but that’s no longer the case it’s much much more reliable now.”

Office 2008 for the Mac will be launched in Australia on January 31 starting at $229 for the Home & Student edition (which consists only of Word Excel and PowerPoint but includes three user licenses) with $649 for the full edition and $399 for upgrades from Office 2004.

David Flynn is attending Macworld 2008 at San Francisco as a guest of Apple