Yesterday, in connection with the opening of Apple Expo in Paris, Microsoft has announced that Office 2008 for Mac will start shipping on January 15, 2008. However, on Mac Mojo, the blog for Microsoft’s Macintosh Business Unit, Microsoft’s Eric Paquin confirmed the following:

BiDi languages and Unicode support has not change since 2004.

Yes, you heard right: Office 2008 for Mac cannot handle right-to-left Unicode (for Hebrew, Arabic, etc.) any better than Office 2004 for Mac—which is to say, not at all. This is a serious setback for Microsoft, and an absolute impediment to my use of their software. A couple of years ago, a fellow brought a PowerPoint (Windows) presentation to a WECSOR conference, but he didn’t bring a laptop. The AV support staff at the host college was, well, not supporting very well—as in, the computers were all locked up or password-protected, with nobody around to provide the passwords. So I pulled out my macBook, hooked it up to the computer, fired up PowerPoint, and away we went … with all of the presenter’s Hebrew terribly garbled. Individual unpointed words still went the correct direction, but the order of words in the sentence was reversed.

Apple’s iWork ‘08 suite (which shipped in August ‘07) handles Unicode Hebrew reasonably well, and offers word processing (Pages), spreadsheet (Numbers), and presentations (Keynote—which is far and away better than PowerPoint in other respects as well) for $79, a much lower price than any level of Office 2008. Apple’s Mail application handles Unicode Hebrew reasonably well, too, and it’s bundled with the OS. (Safari is fine for unpointed Hebrew, but it doesn’t properly line up the niqqudim, so I use Camino instead.) Nisus Writer Pro ($79) is a little better than Pages on language support, a little worse in other respects (such as precise sizing and placing of graphic elements and tables). Mellel ($29) is horrible if you want any kind of real page layout capabilities other than simple inline graphics, but it runs rings around everything else in terms of its language support, and has become the word processor I use most often for anything involving Hebrew text.

I was really hoping that Office ‘08 for Mac would bring Microsoft’s Unicode RTL support up to the level of at least the Mac OS, if not Mellel—but now we know that there has been no advance over Office ‘04.

Some of you may be thinking, “Hey, Chris, just quit your whining. You have Pages and Mellel and Nisus. Just use [my favorite] one of those!” Well, that is what I do. For example, I produce all my quizzes and tests for Hebrew 330–331 in Mellel. Unfortunately, Mellel’s XML file format is not a standard medium of cross-platform exchange. Many book and journal editors these days ask for digital manuscripts in .doc format (it will be interesting to see whether they switch to .docx). Some of my programs can read/write .doc or .docx, but I don’t have a convenient way to preview any of those files that they create to check them for problems.

The Another big problem with Office ‘08 for Macintosh is the lack of Entourage support for e-mail accounts on Exchange servers. You don’t get any support for Exchange servers in the Home or Student/Teacher editions. You must buy the top-of-the-line Pro edition to get any Exchange support at all. As Brian wrote in a comment thread on the Mac BU blog:

So what if I’m a student and our campus uses exchange server, I’m stuck with paying the full $399 retail price? Wow, that’s harsh.

BobR followed up with:

What exactly does “Exchange Support” mean? I’m glad you’ve got your pricing done before you are willing to explain your features: Exactly how I would have done it.

And “eponymous” gets the final say, with a response to Brian:

But that $399 will buy you the top of the line, cutting edge state of the art Exchange support we’ve come to expect from …. oh, never mind.