Is Microsoft Office on the Mac still important?

A new version of Microsoft Office may be ready for the Mac soon. Is it as important as it used to be?

Rumor has it that Microsoft is on the cusp of releasing a new version of Office for Mac. It's been more than three years since the last version of Office came out. Things have changed a lot. Is Microsoft Office still important?

Since Office's last major release on the Mac, Apple made a major strategic move to trump Microsoft: It began to include productivity apps as part of the standard suite of software applications included on all new Macs and iOS devices. You used to have to buy iWork apps — Pages, Keynote and Numbers — separately, but now you get them for free.

Those three apps fill in the gaps for some users who need word processing, spreadsheet and presentation software capabilities. There are certainly some benefits, too, such as iCloud support and binary compatibility for documents, making it simple to edit files on your Mac and use them on your iPad, or vice versa.

Other options have emerged, too. Free software alternatives to Office like LibreOffice may still raise eyebrows, but Google has normalized many people to using Google Docs for their productivity software and collaboration needs, for example.

iWork is good, but it's not that good. As I said back in February, 'Almost' isn't good enough. Despite the advances that Apple has made, Microsoft Office still reigns supreme in corporate environments and elsewhere. Many businesses and institutions continue to rely on Office as their standard.

Like most alternative productivity suites, iWork apps try to be good corporate citizens, offering Office file compatibility for import and export, but there's a difference between file compatibility and native file support, and many users of iWork apps and other tools have run into issues with documents just not looking right when they're translated into Office formats.

As I said at the outset, Apple has changed, but so has Microsoft. Much of their focus has been to make Office a subscription-based service rather than a monolithic software suite that gets updated once every few years.

You can still buy Office in a single user version. But Microsoft is following Adobe's Creative Cloud lead, offering an annual subscription with the promise of regular updates, along with other benefits, such as the ability to share one subscription with multiple devices, a free OneDrive cloud service account with 20 GB of storage, free Skype world minutes and more.

Of course, a new version of Office for Mac is only one tantalizing piece of the puzzle. The other is a version of Office that will run on iPads. Microsoft expert Mary Jo Foley suggested in February that an iPad version is coming sooner than people think, perhaps some time in the first half of 2014. A well-integrated Mac and iPad Microsoft Office ecosystem would certainly be fierce competition for Apple, which is still in a rebuilding year after gutting the iWork apps to get them to work more seamlessly across iOS and OS X.

Another piece of the puzzle: Microsoft may bring OneNote to the Mac in the next few weeks. Microsoft's note-taking app is a decade old, but it's not available in Mac native form, leaving the market wide open for competitors like Evernote to dominate.

Office remains one of the best selling software packages for the Mac. Lots of Mac users depend on Office to get their work done, and that's unlikely to change. Office is still front and center for many in the corporate and institutional worlds.

The combination of a new version of Microsoft Office for Mac, Office for iPad and OneNote for Mac suggests that Microsoft still thinks that Apple's platforms are still fertile ground. Even if you don't like Microsoft's products, you have to admit that the company's continued support is a net positive: It makes it easier to justify using Macs and iOS devices in enterprise and reduces friction for users who want to effortlessly produce documents that their non-Apple using colleagues can work.

To answer my initial question, Microsoft Office's role has changed. It's no longer irreplaceable - fact is, there are a lot of options people can use if they want to produce word processing docs, spreadsheets and attractive presentations. But Office is still a vital and important tool for many of us, and that won't change.

Are you looking forward to a new version of Office for the Mac? Will you migrate to new Office apps for OS X and iOS? Let me know what you think in the comments.

Peter Cohen