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Microsoft Corp. still loves Apple Computer Inc.'s Macinstosh, even as the current five-year deal between the companies comes to a close. Microsoft's plan: Remain focused on creating products that make it easier for Macs and Windows PCs to communicate. Microsoft will soon take that plan so far as to make Apple products compatible with its much ballyhooed .Net plan.

That was the message Kevin Browne, general manager of Microsoft's Macintosh business unit, delivered to customers and developers at a program Wednesday at the Microsoft campus here.

Microsoft's 150-member Mac team will continue to crank out new applications, including a service release update of Microsoft Office for OS X this spring and a revamped MSN Messenger, he said.

Browne didn't comment, however, on whether Microsoft might again invest in Apple. Microsoft accompanied the technology exchange agreement with a US$150 million stock purchase that provided Apple with a much-needed cash infusion.

"The [Macintosh] Business Unit was formed before the technology agreement," Browne said. "The technology agreement has never determined what we do on the Mac. We would welcome another such agreement, but it isn't necessary for our continued work with Apple."

The 1997 agreement was a business matter to encourage cooperation between the platform rivals, Microsoft representatives noted. No Apple representatives commented at the presentation, although two Apple vice presidents and development team members were present. Nonetheless, Apple has clearly benefited from Microsoft's application support.

Updates due

The next of those applications due out is a May or June service release update for Office for OSX, which Apple originally shipped last November, Browne said. Microsoft will post the SR-1 as a free download that includes an estimated 1000 "tweaks, bug fixes, and performance enhancements," he said. "Some things are dramatically more stable."

SR-1 will provide full support for anti-aliased text, Browne said. It will also add support for Open Database Connectivity (ODBC), which lets the application integrate with server-level databases such as SQL Server and Oracle, Browne noted. It will enable users to import files from Filemaker, the dominant Mac desktop database and one of the few leading Mac applications that Microsoft doesn't make.

Synchronization with Palm devices is also in development, but it may be released later if the technology is not ready in time for SR-1, Browne added.

With Word, Excel, and Office, Microsoft dominates the field in Mac software, and its Internet Explorer browser is the leading Mac browser. Apple subsidiary Filemaker leads in database sales on the Mac, however, and Microsoft does not plan to enter that market, Browne said.

Committed to OS X

Just as Apple is betting the company on OS X, Microsoft plans to develop new applications geared specifically to the latest version of the Mac operating system, Browne said.

The next version of Office will continue Microsoft's emphasis on a "Mac-like" interface rather than providing a Windows application on a Mac platform, according to Microsoft representatives. Tighter integration with other personal devices, such as handhelds, and tools to enhance teamwork with other platforms are also in development, Browne said. Microsoft expects to ship an update to Office for the Mac in mid-2003.

A new version of MSN Messenger will probably be released about the same time as Office SR-1, Browne said. New functions will include voice-over IP support and file transfer capabilities, already in the Windows version, said Erik Ryan, product manager with the Macintosh Business Unit. MSN Messenger 2.1 is part of Office.

Microsoft is also updating its IE browser for the Mac. "It's not the product we want it to be," Browne said. "We want to improve performance, implement a security infrastructure, and implement HTML (Hypertext Markup Language) and XML (Extensible Markup Language) rendering." Developers are also redesigning the interface.

And now, .Net

Microsoft plans to fashion a role for the Mac in its .Net scenario, a preeminent Microsoft strategy that emphasizes collaborative projects and will enable Web services among disparate public and private networks.

The premise of .Net is the growing digital interconnectedness of business and personal pursuits. Companies need to communicate and collaborate across distributed departments, with customers, and with business partners, Microsoft executives said. The company's .Net architecture involves a number of building blocks that can integrate different tasks, from sharing files to linking databases when appropriate.

It's a challenge already familiar to Mac users, Browne noted. "When we talk to Mac customers, integration is one of the hardest things they face," he said. Typically, about 15 percent of a corporation runs on Macintosh systems and the rest on PCs--and they still need to communicate.

Microsoft envisions its .Net services supporting a range of client platforms, including Mac and Windows PCs and notebooks, but also handhelds, tablet PCs, and phones. The Mac's role in the .Net universe is as a client, however, not as a server, Browne said. Microsoft does not plan to release server-level versions of its development tools for the Macintosh, reserving those tasks for Windows.

"We'll create client software," Browne says. "What we won't do, at this point, is to promote .Net as the thing you do if you're a Mac [software developer]."

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