Will Microsoft, Apple renew their Office vows?

After nearly five years of living in technological harmony, two of the biggest names in personal computing are due to renew their vows.

In August, a contract forged in 1997 between Microsoft Corp. and Apple Computer Inc. will expire, leaving both companies legally unchained. While the companies declined to comment this week on whether they plan to renew the contract, analysts and company officials said the technical cooperation, such as the development of Microsoft's Office software for Macintosh computers, will continue.

Microsoft has scheduled a presentation for April 10 at its Mountain View, California, campus where Kevin Browne, general manager of Microsoft's Macintosh Business Unit (MacBU), is expected to discuss the future of the group and its products now that the contract is nearing its end.

Maintaining a relationship of some sort will be vital for both companies, analysts said. For one, Microsoft's Office software has become a key application for Mac users, according to Roger Kay, director of client computing with IDC, in Framingham, Massachusetts. "Office for Mac is a really integral part of what Apple is offering. It's very critical for Apple to have the Office suite," he said.

Analysts said maintaining ties will also be important for the Redmond, Washington, software maker as it pursues its wide initiative for delivering software and services over the Internet, called .Net.

Some of Wednesday's presentation will touch on .Net's role in the Mac community, Microsoft said. It comes in the midst of Microsoft's push to get developers and users to adopt its .Net products. As for how Apple, in Cupertino, California, might be included in its plans, that remains an open question.

"It's very critical to Apple that they get this .Net blessing, otherwise they're going to get forced out of the corporate network," said Rob Enderle, research fellow with Giga Information Group Inc. Enderle noted that many Giga customers have raised concerns recently about the cost and difficulty of supporting Mac computers within corporate networks.

While Microsoft confirmed Tuesday that it plans to bring Apple into its .Net to some degree, Apple has been vague about how it will support the technology. "Basically, we're not really sure what .Net is because it's not very well defined," said an Apple spokesman. "But we always look at new technologies and how they can benefit Mac users."

One piece of technology that would bridge Apple's Macintosh operating system with .Net is already in the works, though not at Apple. Microsoft and Corel Corp. have developed an alternative version of the .Net runtime environment, known as the .Net Framework, for the FreeBSD operating system. FreeBSD is a variant of Unix and is also at the core of Mac OS X, offering what should be an easy path to replicate the technology for the Mac.

A separate effort to develop a Linux implementation of the .Net Framework, known as Mono, has also committed to porting its work to Mac OS X, according to Miguel de Icaza, chief technology officer of Ximian Inc., who is leading the Mono effort.

In addition to broadening the base of users that would be able to use software and services designed to run in the .Net runtime environment, bringing Apple into Microsoft's .Net plans could also improve networking compatibilities between Mac and Windows systems, Enderle noted.

Apple has promoted its operating system beginning with Mac OS 9 as Windows-friendly. Support for Office applications, the Windows media player and some networking capabilities have been addressed. For instance, sharing files between Windows and Mac machines is seamless, said Al Gillen, research director of software systems at IDC.

Still, Macintosh clients are still sore thumbs in corporate networks that use Microsoft server and database software, Enderle said.

"Right now we are getting the highest number of requests from people who are trying to migrate off of Apple," he said. "People are incredibly concerned that these Apple machines are going to be isolated" in Windows networks.

One issue is the Unix roots in Mac OS X, which is based on the BSD operating system. "This Unix component is working against them," Enderle said. "It's basically Unix with an Apple front end, but from the administrators' point of view, all they see is Unix."

While Unix is used widely by businesses it typically takes the form of server software. "Most organizations have Unix servers installed, and they're prepared to manage Unix systems. The question is whether they're prepared to manage large blocks of Unix clients," Gillen said.

Similar to computers running the open source operating system Linux, the Unix features in Mac OS X add a new element to network management that was not previously an issue with Windows PCs residing in a network.

"Most of the system management tools are very much geared for Windows clients. As soon as you start turning that around to Unix clients, that presents a different paradigm," Gillen continued. "Not to say the tools can't handle Unix clients but it's something they haven't done previously."

Additional work on behalf of Microsoft and Apple could iron out any issues that keep Windows and Mac users apart, Enderle said. One way to do that would be for Apple to come up with a strategy that allowed its users to use Microsoft's .Net services.

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