The four-year wait for a new version of Microsoft Office for Macs is finally coming to an end -- in another year. Microsoft on Friday announced it will launch a public beta of the new version of Office for Mac during the first half of 2015, with a commercial release planned for the second half of the year. To tide over its Mac customers in the meantime, Microsoft on Friday released an updated version of Outlook for Macs.
The news arrives days after alleged screenshots of the next-gen Mac software leaked online. Microsoft is reportedly conducting closed tests of the next Office version of Office for Macs with both internal teams and select customers. Windows users have had access to Office 2013 since last year, but Mac users have been stuck with Office 2011 since 2010.
The Outlook update brings the Mac version closer to its Windows counterpart and is intended to provide a more consistent experience among Windows, Mac, Web-based, iOS, and Android versions. Enhancements include a refined UI that Microsoft says will offer improved scrolling as well as better performance when the user switches among ribbon tabs. The updated app also offers full push email support for Office 365 users and faster downloads thanks to improved Exchange Web Services synching. Outlook for Mac also now includes archive search support for email stored in both on-premises and cloud-based versions of Exchange.
[Unwieldy yes, but still popular. Read Has Email Peaked?]
The new Outlook for Mac is available only to Office 365 commercial customers and Office 365 Home, Personal, or University subscribers -- so those with standalone Office for Mac licenses are left out for now. Enterprise customers can install the update via the Office 365 portal or Microsoft's software page. Those with consumer accounts can access the new bits via their Office 365 "My Account" page.
As for the next version of Office for Macs, Microsoft said it will sell a traditional standalone version but that Office 365 customers will receive the next-gen productivity suite as a free part of their subscriptions. The company also addressed why it's allowed the current version of Office for Mac to grow so long in the tooth.
"Historically we have released a new version of Office for Mac approximately six to eight months after Office for Windows," the company said in a blog post announcing the Outlook update. "However, following the release of Office 365 we made the conscious decision to prioritize mobile first and cloud first scenarios for an increasing number of people who are getting things done on-the-go more frequently."
Windows PCs still control much more market share than Macs. Office is likewise still the productivity standard, especially for businesses. But as sales of Windows machines have slid over the last few years, Macs have gained ground. Many users who don't require Office's high-end tools have also increasingly turned to free productivity suites.
Given that the next version of Office for Macs is still many months away, Office alternatives might continue to tempt Apple customers. Earlier this month, the company updated its iWork suite, whose Pages, Numbers, and Keynote apps compete with Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, respectively. The updates added support for features that make the apps work more cohesively across Apple devices; the "handoff" feature, for example, allows a user to create a document on a Mac and seamlessly pick up the project on an iPad, or vice versa. The iWork update also added a variety of smaller enhancements, including support for images in tables, headers, and footers in Pages; better control over chart sizes in Numbers; and new presentation animations in Keynote.
But Microsoft has been making moves, too. The company recently announced that Office 365 packages now include unlimited OneDrive cloud storage. Based on the company's consumer Office 365 revenue, Microsoft's Office for iPad apps have also performed well.
Microsoft is expected to release new Office apps for Windows PCs in late 2015. Traditionally, features in Mac versions of Windows have been a generation behind those in Windows versions. If Microsoft releases both versions concurrently, however, it's possible the company plans to keep both Mac and PC editions on similar development and release cycles. The company also is reportedly developing Office apps for Android tablets as well as a touch-first version of Office for Windows tablets.
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