Microsoft, Apple tout partnership

Apple Computer and Microsoft executives here at MacWorld are playing up the accomplishments that their partnership has brought forth over the past year. And even sceptical Mac loyalists -- no fans of Bill Gates -- say the pairing has been beneficial to Apple.

Last August, interim Apple chief executive officer Steve Jobs announced, to hisses and boos from the MacWorld Boston crowd, that Microsoft was taking a $US150 million stake in the company he co-founded. But the deal is yielding fruit for users in the form of better Microsoft software as well as new bundling and promotional deals, and will continue to do so, executives from both companies said.

"It's really exciting to come to MacWorld and be from Microsoft and actually get applause, but I guess that's what happens when you finally understand how to write good Mac software," said Ben Waldman, general manager for the Mac business unit at Microsoft. Though Microsoft developers had always had contact with Apple, the bonds have become stronger over the past year, said Waldman.

"We're talking to our partners at Microsoft all the time. I talk to Steve Jobs a lot and often we'll have e-mail exchanges when we're both working in the middle of the night -- sometimes I'll be working and I'll get an e-mail from Steve at three in the morning," said Waldman.

This deeper relationship, and organisational changes at Microsoft, has helped make Microsoft products for the Mac more Mac-like, said Waldman.

"The products are being built from the ground up for the Mac," said Waldman.

Though the Mac business unit was formed a year and a half ago, before the Microsoft stake in Apple, it was just two months ago that all Mac developers in the company were brought together under the unit's umbrella, Waldman said. This, and the closer ties to Apple, have had the effect of making Microsoft Mac products have a look and feel that is more consistent among themselves and with other Mac applications, Waldman said.

"There are a lot of little things, but they add up," he said. For example, all Microsoft Mac products are being built with tab dialogs that change when the user lifts up on the mouse -- like other Mac apps -- rather than when the user clicks down, Waldman said.

Many features Microsoft is building into Mac products will appear on Mac products first and Windows products second, or will only appear on Mac products, as a result of Microsoft developers taking full advantage of Mac capabilities, he said. While Waldman declined to single out specific product features for unannounced products, he pointed to examples of things Microsoft has already done to tune products for the Mac, and said users can expect more of this type of work.

For example Office 98 for the Mac, released in March, features drag and drop installation, letting users load an application onto their hard drives by clicking and dragging icons form the hard drive.

Self-repairing applications also first made their appearance in Office for the Mac. This feature automatically takes hidden dynamic link libraries (DLLs) and moves them into applications when the original DLLs are accidentally deleted.

Also, Apple is working with Microsoft to develop Java technologies for Macs, Apple officials pointed out. The companies are collaborating on a single Java virtual machine for the Mac OS, which will incorporate Microsoft Java technologies. This will ensure that Java applets created with Microsoft tools will work as well on both Apple OS and Windows based machines.

Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser itself is being bundled on the Mac OS, and users buying the $US1299 iMac machine will get Explorer 4.01, which features a 30 per cent performance improvement over the current 4.0 version, Waldman said.

Microsoft is also heavily promoting its applications for the Mac. For example when the iMac is shipped, any user who buys a machines and Microsoft Office within 60 days gets a $US100 rebate back for the software from Microsoft, Waldman said. The full price on the software is $US499. Users in educational institutions, who normally get a discount price of $US199 on Office anyway, will get Encarta, Front Page and Bookshelf for free when they buy Office within 60 days of getting an iMac.

But convincing users of the benefits of the pairing of the companies has been an uphill battle.

"People booed when we announced [the investment] ... to tell the truth if I had been using Word 6 for the Mac I may have booed too," Waldman said.

Part of the companies' job here is to convince long-time users that the team-up has been good for Apple, and much of Steve Jobs' two-hour-long keynote yesterday was given over to a Microsoft-Apple love-fest.

But admitted cynical, long-time Mac fans said that the Microsoft investment in Apple has been a good thing for the company.

" 'Micro-squash' invested in Apple to keep the Feds off their back," said James Keiding, president of Meridian Product Inc., a computer consultancy in Avon Lakes, Ohio, referring to current antitrust litigation filed by the US Department of Justice and state attorneys general. "Bill Gates, with more than 90 per cent of the market, can squash just about any other company in his market like a bug -- but he's brought stability to the Mac market and without him there would be a question whether Apple would be here now," said Keiding.

In his keynote, Jobs announced that 177 new and upgraded applications had been announced for the Macintosh since the iMac consumer-oriented machine was announced two months ago.