woman working on a Mac
Mac users have travelled down a long bumpy path when it comes to Office 365, but things are starting to look up PHOTO: Steinar Engeland

The relationship between Microsoft applications and services on macOS (formerly OS X) over the years can be described as shaky at best.

It epitomizes the up and down relationship between the two companies. But lately things seem to be changing for the better. 

When Satya Nadella took over as Microsoft CEO three years ago, he brought with him a renewed desire to see Microsoft thrive on all platforms and contexts. Under his watch, Microsoft has renewed its commitment to macOS.

So how has Microsoft evolved the usage of Office 365 on macOS? Office 365 is a big umbrella, but for the purposes of this article will concentrate on: desktop applications, email, VOIP/IM and web-based collaboration.

Office on Mac: Turning Around a Sad Story

When we think of Microsoft, it's hard to avoid Microsoft Office. Office has long been the standard bearer in productivity applications. Apple tried to enter the space with its iLife suite, but never managed to displace Office.

Unfortunately, Office on the Mac has been a sad story for a long time.

Microsoft released Office 2010, 2013 and 2016, but only released one version of Office for Mac. Office 2011 was its poor attempt to bring the collaboration paradigms of Office, such as the Ribbon and SharePoint integration, to Mac users. It used old APIs and interaction models that left Mac users limping for a long time. 

Thankfully, the release of Office 2016 for Mac has changed this.

A comparison between Word on Windows (top) and Mac (bottom)
A comparison between Word on Windows (top) and Mac (bottom)

This version runs under the same banner of Office 365 with its constant stream of updates and innovation. The updated versions of Word, PowerPoint, Excel and OneNote dramatically improved on their predecessors (more on Outlook later). 

The Microsoft team successfully designed a set of applications that feel native to Office UI paradigms as well as a great Mac application. Despite some feature parity issues between Office on Windows and macOS, Office for Mac shines today.

Email: From Email 'Light' to Greater Functionality

As much as we may wish to move away from email, it is thoroughly entrenched in our workflows. Microsoft continues to shine in this area with Microsoft Exchange and its implementation under the larger umbrella of Office 365. 

Once upon a time, Mac users were forced to use “light” version of Outlook for the web, but those days are gone. Instead they now have a quick and modern email interface. In addition to email, Exchange also excels in calendar and contact management.

Exchange first came to the Mac through Microsoft Entourage, the early version of Outlook for Mac. It was, to put it mildly, a burning dumpster fire of an application and has the dubious reputation of being perhaps the worst Mac email client ever created. 

Outlook in Office 2016 marks a great improvement. It feels much more stable than Entourage, but it suffers from greater feature mismatch between Windows and the Mac. 

Outlook on Windows offers great functionality. The same can't be said for on a Mac. The Outlook for Mac user voice site notes many issues including not using native macOS notifications and lack of support for other email and calendaring services. Hopefully it will catch up to its Windows counterpart in time. 

For those who do not want to use Outlook other options remain. MacOS natively supports Exchange in its stock calendar, email, contacts and reminders applications, and many third-party options are also available including one I use: Airmail.

VOIP and IM Improvement, But Still Room for More

For a long time Mac users were subjected to Lync for Mac 2011, which was yet another poor quality application. With the recent release of the new Skype for Business Mac application, the Microsoft voice over IP and instant messaging story has received a dramatic rewrite and rethinking. Call quality and the IM experience have both improved greatly.

The new Mac Skype for Business app
The new Mac Skype for Business app

Like Outlook for Mac, Skype for Business on Mac still lags the Windows version. 

Many issues remain. Hopefully development for this application goes as quickly as it does for the rest of the Office line. Even basic things such as enabling “Do Not Disturb” on macOS when presenting, application screen sharing and file sharing are not yet available. 

Skype for Business User Voice keeps a running tab of what is being worked on for future development cycles.

Web-Based Collaboration

“Web-based collaboration” refers mainly to SharePoint and other Office 365 portals such as Delve. SharePoint has had a long checkered past supporting browsers other than Internet Explorer. But every version since SharePoint 2010 has improved that story, and with the latest changes to the SharePoint list, library and publishing experiences it has largely ceased to be an issue.

Previous versions of SharePoint limited Mac user functionality with dependencies such as ActiveX for datasheet views — among other features — but Microsoft has removed those dependencies over time. As an implementer and as a user, I no longer have any hesitations about using any modern browser with SharePoint in Office 365.

Microsoft released a new OneDrive sync client for macOS on Jan. 24. The new release not only greatly improves the stock OneDrive sync experience, but allows for syncing SharePoint content to the Mac. I experienced no issues using the beta version for the last few months. 

The SharePoint integration is also much improved in the Office desktop applications over Office 2011. Overall, the OneDrive sync client is a great addition to macOS.

The new OneDrive app in macOS Finder
The new OneDrive app in macOS Finder

The Holdouts

Several Office 365 applications remain Windows-only, including SharePoint Designer and the PowerBI desktop application.  

If you need to run these applications, you have options. MacOS includes Boot Camp which provides native support to boot into Windows on your Mac, and virtualization options such as Parallels and VMWare Fusion are also available. The virtualization option has allowed me to use those applications when I needed them.

A Happy Ending

Microsoft should be applauded for its work to bring macOS users (and those on other platforms) access to Office 365. The future looks very bright when people can use whatever device or operating system they choose to run Office 365 service. 

The macOS story has been one of drastic improvement, and all of us can work with that kind of progress.