How can Microsoft make Office for Mac ‘administrator friendly’?

Software developers need to make their software “administrator friendly” because we are their first line of defense when supporting their products. If we can resolve a user’s problem then that’s one less problem the developer needs to resolve. Following is an open letter to Microsoft on behalf of administrators like myself requesting what we need in the next version of Microsoft Office for Mac.

Whom and what do I support?

I manage around 200 Macs in nearly a dozen sites worldwide. Some sites have just two or three Macs. That means I’ve never touched many of the machines that I manage. A lot of my work is done from my office in Saint Paul, MN, using tools like Apple Remote Desktop (ARD) and Casper, which let me remote control machines, install software and manage settings.

Administrators in the enterprise have very different needs than end users. We may or may not use the software ourselves but we’re still responsible for ensuring that it gets installed properly and runs smoothly. If end users experience problems with software than they turn to us first for support. Each administrator represents up to a few hundred end users. Solving one problem for an administrator can mean solving one problem for dozens or even hundreds of users.

What do I as an administrator need?

I need software that helps me meet my core support responsibilities:

  • Deployment
  • Management
  • Troubleshooting

The following table outlines Microsoft’s progress over the last three versions of Office for Mac. Whereas Office 2004 was not administrator friendly, Office 2011 is much easier to deploy and maintain.

Administrator requirements for Office for Mac
Office 2004 Office 2008 Office 2011
Easy to deploy Yes Yes Yes
Volume license available Yes Yes Yes
Easy to update No Yes Yes
Standard installer No Yes Yes
Requires administrators to install No Yes Yes
Installer handles serialization No Yes Yes
Easy to uninstall No No No
Applications are scriptable Yes Yes Yes
Cumulative updates Partial Yes Yes
Software components are stored in Apple designated locations No Yes Yes
Automatic mail configuration No Partial Yes
Easy to back up mail data No No Yes
Application preferences can be centrally managed using MCX No No Partial
Easy to archive and retrieve mail data No No No
Silent identity upgrades No No No
Application logging No No Partial
Crash logs No No No

This is where Microsoft stands today and where they need to improve.

Easy to deploy

Every version of Office for Mac has been relatively easy to install on multiple machines. It has either offered a drag-and-drop installation or used an Apple Installer package.

Volume license available

Administrators supporting five or more users can purchase a volume license to make deployment even easier. A volume license eliminates the need for an administrator to track serial numbers and removes the burden of entering serial number information during installation.

Easy to update

However, only the last two versions of Office for Mac have actually been easy to update. Whereas Apple Installer packages can be deployed via several third party tools, the Office 2004 updaters are not scriptable. They must literally be double-clicked and run while someone is logged into the computer.

Making updates easy to deploy means that administrators will be more likely to apply them, fixing security holes, fixing bugs and adding new features for end users.

Standard installer

Again, this means using a Apple Installer packages. They are scriptable and can even be installed while no one is logged into the computer.

Requires administrators to install

Why is this important? Administrators are not only responsible for maintaining a working computer but also for maintaining correct software licenses. If standard users are able to install software then they may choose to add software from a different company or even purchase their own software. Requiring administrator level privileges to install software means someone authoritative for the computer is responsible for the software license.

Installer handles serialization

The purpose of the installer is to handle installation and licensing. When an installed application is run for the first time then it should be ready for the end-user to use. Office 2004 offered a drag-and-drop install  and then a “first run” routine to handle additional installations the first time an Office application was launched. The problem with that scenario was that it required administrators to initiate the first launch and enter the licensing information.

Easy to uninstall

Although Office 2004 and 2008 come bundled with Remove Office tools, neither of these tools is scriptable. Office 2011 comes with no Remove Office tool whatsoever. Administrators who need to upgrade users from an older version to a newer version must run these removal tools manually or devise their own scripts to handle this. Administrators need a command-line capable application they can run whether or not someone is logged in to the computer.

Applications are scriptable

Scriptable applications mean that administrators can often devise scripts to handle situations that the applications themselves don’t handle. For example, they can script Entourage or Outlook to automatically configure a user account the first time the application launches. Scriptability allows an administrator to insert a little customization into his user’s experience.

Cumulative updates

A mature Office product may require multiple updates to reinstall the software and get it back to the latest patch level. Cumulative updates makes updating easier because several prior updates are rolled into just one. Reducing the number of updates saves time. Office 2004 does offer cumulative updates for major point releases, however, each minor point release thereafter requires the prior minor point release be installed first. Updating Office 2004 from version 11.0.0 to 11.6.3 requires four updates whereas updating Office 2008 or 2011 requires just one, two or maybe three updates.

Software components are stored in Apple designated locations

Apple has designated certain locations for certain files. Applications are stored in the /Applications folder. Supporting files are stored in the /Library/Application Support folder. Fonts are stored in the /Library/Fonts folder. They have a place for everything and everything should be in place. Keeping application files organized means easier troubleshooting for administrators when things go wrong.

Automatic mail configuration

Most Office users will use the mail application that accompanies it. Outlook for Mac includes a customizable dictionary for administrators to include POP or IMAP account information for their companies. This means the end-user need only know his email address to connect to his mail account. If using Exchange, Outlook will use the Autodiscover protocol to not only connect a user to his account for the first time but to keep him connected should he need to access a different server.

Easy to back up mail data

Office 2004 and 2008 were criticized for storing mail data in a monolithic Database file that could reach several GB in size. Backups for some users were practically impossible. Office 2011 discarded the monolithic file for folders of individual files.

Application preferences can be centrally managed using MCX

Using MCX an administrator can customize preferences for some or all end-users from a central server. It requires that preferences be stored in the user’s home folder ~/Library/Preferences and that those preferences be in .plist form, which is a special type of XML file. Office 2004 and 2008 stored user preferences mostly in proprietary file formats. Office 2011 changed to .plist format for all applications. However, some user settings for Outlook are still stored in proprietary format.

Easy to archive and retrieve mail data

Outlook for Windows offers personal folders (.pst files) to allow offline storage of mail data that is quickly accessible and easy to modify. Neither Entourage nor Outlook offer a similar capability. They can both export and import archive files but to access or alter a single archived message means completely importing the archive file. Without this capability administrators must often deal with unwieldy message stores when migrating data for a user from one computer to another.

Silent identity upgrades

Administrators do not want a user to wait while his user identity is imported after upgrading to a new version of Office. Depending on the size of the old identity he could be waiting anywhere from a few minutes to 30 minutes or more. This process can also be confusing to the user unless he has been sufficiently educated about the upgrade. A silent identity upgrade should enable the administrator to upgrade every identity on a computer via a command line and scripts before the user launches Outlook for the first time.

Application logging

Entourage, Web Services Edition, and Outlook are the only applications that offer logging. And that logging is really limited to Exchange account connections. All Office applications should log errors at minimum and store them in each user’s ~/Library/Logs folder in a format that the Console application can readily read. Major events such as installations, updates, application launches, application crashes, preference changes and server communications should be included as well. Logs are important to administrators for troubleshooting. The more information the better.

Crash logs

Every application that crashes generates a log file. Microsoft intercepts crash logs for its own applications and offers to submit them to its own servers for examination, which is acceptable. However, once submitted it then deletes the crash log instead of storing it. Without these logs administrators have no evidence of any crashes or their frequency. Crash logs belong to the user and should be maintained on the user’s computer.

The next version of Office for Mac

The above table demonstrates that Microsoft has significantly improved Office making it much friendlier for administrators to support. However, each support responsibility (deployment, management and troubleshooting) still needs attention, some more than others. If I had to offer Microsoft three directives they would be:

  1. Store all user preferences and settings in .plist file format, especially Outlook preferences and settings.
  2. Make user data such as Outlook mail, accessible via command line.
  3. Log all significant activity

These may seem like simple ideas but they are very large goals to meet. The benefit of accomplishing these goals, though, is improved support for not just me but for everyone I support.

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2 comments to How can Microsoft make Office for Mac ‘administrator friendly’?

  • Jess Frykholm

    If you only use Office 2011 for Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Outlook, the cost delta is $350/seat for a volume license, versus $175 for shrink-wrap.

    For the company I manage, I couldn’t justify the cost differential, when it basically came down to two benefits: “one serial number” and “software like Sharepoint that we don’t use anyway”.

    Managing Individual Shrink Wrap is a real hassle. The serial number verification is not intuitive (versus something like Adobe, which has a “deactivate” option in the help menu).

    I’m pretty jealous of people that can afford to not have to store and manage 75 boxes of software, but until such time as MS gets their act in gear, that’s where we are.

  • Max

    Volume pricing is absurd here in Germany, too. The (business) box is beeing sold below half the price of the volume license. I talked to distributers and all a got was “That’s how it is.” One pointed out that volume licences include the right to install a second copy on private laptops (for the same user). But it’s still way more expensive and we don’t even want second installations.

    In the end, struggeling with a pig pile of boxes and license keys is more cost-efficient (at least for all but huge companies), which is a pity…