Microsoft Office 365 for Mac — what a disappointment

Office365The background

For the past decade or so I’ve pretty much got by with open source or free software. Even my MacBook was a version that didn’t get the Apple “office” apps. LibreOffice, Thunderbird, The GIMP, Inkscape, Scribus, Apache, MySQL, WordPress, Eclipse, Chrome, Firefox and a long list of lesser apps have been enough for me.

Why then did I subscribe to Office 365 in a recent moment of weakness?

It’s been a temptation for a while as I do more work out of the office and off the breathless and unreliable work laptop. There’s a long list of little irritations to working on a single document with two office suites; enough to be noticeable, sometimes very irritating, but seldom fatal. Eventually though, the combination of a discount subscription, a work upgrade that originally came with OneNote(1) and the need to review a complex Word document, reliably creating tracked changes & comments, tipped the balance. Add in 1TB of storage and 60 Skype minutes and I caved and subscribed for a year.

I should emphasise that I thought I was doing this with my eyes open.

  • I have a 4 year old Android phone already running Outlook(2) so I planned to go easy on the device and just install OneNote
  • I had higher, but still I thought realistic, expectations of the iPad 2 so Word and Excel joined Outlook(2)
  • No qualms about installing on the MacBook Pro (with its i7 and SSD and all that)
    • No Access or Publisher but they won’t be missed
  • Finally the full monty ended up on the rarely used old Windoze 10 desktop

And what happened then

Two things:

  1. To be fair the three core apps work perfectly on the two desktops — I did my editing job and produced a perfectly marked up review document — and they perform basic open, save and share functions well through live.com
  2. Immense frustration as I discovered major failings
    • The complete inability of Outlook to connect to any of the three major cloud system’s online calendars, contacts, tasks and notes — even Microsoft’s own Windows Live (or Outlook.com)
    • OneNote has no reminder capability and relies on a connection to Outlook. This is only possible on Windoze; the Mac version of Outlook has no connection. Think about that if you are considering switching from Evernote.

I’ve spent the last week searching microsoft.com for a means of connecting Outlook from the Mac or Windoze to Google Calendar and Contacts. It only appears to be possible to connect Outlook to Exchange based, Office365.com online systems which are targeted at business. Having seen the page outlining the options for this I can’t even say with any confidence that this would work on all the plans offered there. At the time of writing I can’t investigate the option of upgrading to Office365.com because Microsoft seems to have a problem.

Those of us on the free consumer version of live.com, even if we are paying for 1TB of storage, are stuck with a communication and productivity tool which can only send & receive mail. Even this is severely compromised by the complete inability of Outlook to import the most basic CSV file of contacts.

Where does that leave anyone who’s bought Office 365 Home or Personal, especially if their primary device is a Mac?

On the upside you have three perfectly competent tools which will connect to live.com. If you have to deal with Office documents from elsewhere, your problems with formatting and lack of features are over.

However — and it’s a huge however — Outlook is as much use as chocolate teapot. Any mail tool will do the same job better, including the “Outlook” installed on mobile devices.

My Conclusion

Microsoft are overselling their current Office suite by saying:

From work to your favorite café, Office 365 keeps you connected to what’s important—friends, family, projects and files. Access the Office apps you use and the files you need seamlessly from your desktop to your mobile devices.

I can’t offer a legal opinion but statements like this scattered throughout the Office 365 Home/Personal web pages might be considered product misdescription.

If things don’t change I’ll probably let my subscription lapse at the end of its year.

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Apple and how to p*ss a customer off

Here I sit doing something I haven’t done since my days with Windows 95 – a clean OS reinstall. The really annoying thing is that it’s an OS X Mavericks reinstall. Apple’s bulletproof software has been misbehaving.

This all started on October 22 when Apple released OS X 10.9 – Mavericks. (Actually a bit earlier but more of that later.) A MacBook user since Christmas 2011 I’ve become used to the ‘just works‘ nature of the OS and upgraded without hesitation. My problems were apparent from day 1 and have only become worse in the weeks since.

We won’t mention here the hours spent on the original download and upgrade; but only because it doesn’t compare too unfavourably with the Windows 8.1 upgrade I performed around the same time. Neither is for the faint hearted or those with a slow internet connection.

Immediate symptoms were laggy scrolling in Launch Pad, sometimes for example needing three or four sideways swipes to move between screens. Irritating but not fatal & Apple will fix it, right? No!

Then other laggy behaviour developed. Even an Apple Genius I know noticed and ran their diagnostics which gave the hardware a clean bill of health. I started seeing the beach ball more often and in the past few days I’ve had several complete freezes; a couple were long enough that I gave up waiting, and since even command+option+escape doesn’t get you out of these freezes, I’ve hard restarted with the power switch.

So today (Saturday) I’ve created myself an install USB and I’m giving the clean reinstall a try.

My first WTF moment; OS X counts down the time remaining to complete the install & stops at ‘one second remaining’ which, considering the reason for this install, is worrying. Luckily I’m sitting here with a Nexus 7 so I Googled it (deliberate plug for Apple competitor inserted, again I’m going to come back to this one). Apparently this is normal & ‘one second’ should say ’20 minutes’ – good job I didn’t believe the screen & abort. Actually I did at about 15 minutes so this is my second ‘one second remaining’ stall.

So we get to setting up the account which is where I again get stuck, with the ‘creating account’ message spinning away. Google and the Nexus to the rescue again with another unbelievable solution, but before that back to the other Apple annoyances.

I would probably just live with these if the recent problems hadn’t arisen but let me say I hate Apple’s ‘walled garden’ and their apparent unwillingness to play with anyone else’s kit. Sharing anything with non-Apple systems is such a b*ll-ache I’ve given up on the idea of switching from Google to iCloud; it would mean investing in Apple for phone, tablet and desktop to be sure I could reliably get at my own data.

Egregious example: daughter goes on holiday and offers me access to her photo stream. No chance unless on a Mac and signed in to iCloud. This is the era of Google (second honourable mention), Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, any of which would happily share with any kit capable of rendering HTML. Come on Apple, get with the 21st century cloud and out from behind your defensive garden wall; stop behaving like CompuServe or AOL from the last millennium.

Back to the reinstall and having got as far as ‘creating account’ twice, now apparently I need to skip the iCloud step. You know, the one Apple asks you to complete during setup. Even factoring in breaks this has taken five hours and too much help from Google.

At this point I should change the title of this post. I’m not just p*ssed off, I’m absolutely furious, fuming and f*cking p*ssed off. I’m facing another hour of deceptive progress bars. Windoze 8.1 may spray around messages about collecting information and just making a few more adjustments but it finishes and never promises ‘one second to go’ before making you wait 20 minutes or offering to create an account then completely failing to finish the process. Does no one at Apple even think to include loop/timeout functions in their install routines?

Reinstall done, the job took several more hours of recovering my files and reinstalling only the apps I really use and need. It probably would have been simpler to let Time Machine restore everything but my confidence that things would ‘just work’ was shaken and I took the chance to tidy things up.

Footnote: iPhoto is missing in base Mavericks. You have to restore it from backup; it seems to work but we’ll see how it survives the long term.

I reiterate, this has felt like a weekend with Windoze: the OS goes on the fritz, no advice or help on support.apple.com and eventually a complete rebuild. In fact it’s been worse because the Mavericks installer has a couple of truly inexcusable bugs, something I’ve never experienced with a Windows install.

Before anyone shrugs this off as some old duffer having a senior moment I should point out that I have some expertise in computing:

  • started with a Commodore 64
  • experienced user of PCs with every possible OS from DOS 3 through Windows 1.0 (runtime), 3.0/3.1, 95, 2000, XP, Vista, right up to 8/8.1
  • Novell network install & admin
  • Centura and Oracle database install & admin

Not exactly a newbie then!

I’m relatively new to Mac though, and am a big fan of the kit (even at Apple premium prices) and the usability of the OS in general; the trackpad and gestures are streets ahead of anything else. However, Apple have fallen from the pedestal they were on, placed there by their own marketing and the legions of fans -including slavish media- who will insist APPL can do no wrong. They now have feet of clay!

This clean reinstall had better make my MacBook run buttery smooth Apple – just saying…