I Am Joe’s Blog:

August 3, 2007 • 12:03 AM

A few words about the new Office 2008 ship date

For the past umpteen years, I have dutifully installed every new version of Microsoft Office for Mac that the company has put out. I expect I will continue doing so indefinitely. I’m not particularly fond of Microsoft as a corporation for all the usual reasons, and I’ve found plenty to complain about in every piece of Microsoft software I’ve used. Nevertheless, I use Office (and particularly Word and Excel) every single day, as probably 90 percent of my income requires it in some fashion. When new versions appear, I fantasize that certain bugs that have existed since the mid-1990s might finally be gone, and they never are, but at least a few things generally get better.

Since I don’t particularly expect that any of my long-standing complaints will disappear in Office 2008, I’ve been looking forward to it for primarily one reason: it’ll be a Universal Binary, and should therefore run faster on my Intel-based Macs than Office 2004 does. In other words, I’ll be glad when Office 2008 ships only to the extent that it should scratch one certain long-standing itch; otherwise, I would have been reasonably content to keep running Office 2004 for years to come.

I say all this to put into context my remarks about today’s announcement that Office 2008 will not, as the company previously claimed, ship in the second half of 2007 but will instead ship in mid-January 2008. As a user, this slippage in ship dates is barely worth noticing. Its net effect on me will probably be next to nil. As a Mac journalist, I find it highly significant that a company the size of Microsoft can’t hit a release window that’s six months wide even when they set that target a mere six months in advance, and I think that’s worth giving the company at least a mild tongue-lashing. But really: I don’t care about the slip. It’s a pity, but no big deal.

What I do care very much about, though, as someone who uses words for a living, is the language Microsoft chose to use in the press release they sent out announcing this delay. It is, truly, a delay: a difference of (depending on how you interpreted “second half of 2007”) anywhere from two weeks to six months and two weeks. And most of the news sites that reported on the delay described it as such. But Microsoft themselves did not use the word “delay.” They didn’t mention that they’d previously announced an earlier date. They didn’t say they were sorry. Instead, they used standard weaselly marketing language to make it sound like they were announcing a virtual non-event, and perhaps even to subtly suggest that anyone who wanted to think about it differently doesn’t care about quality.

Here is the exact text of the press release I received:

Office 2008 Coming January 2008

Microsoft’s Macintosh Business Unit (Mac BU) today announced that Microsoft Office 2008 for Mac will be available in the US in mid-January of 2008 (planning for Macworld), with global general availability in the first quarter of 2008. This was a business decision based on the Mac BU’s commitment to deliver a high-quality product.

“Our number one priority is to deliver quality software to our customers and partners, and in order to achieve this we are shifting availability of Office 2008 for Mac to mid-January of 2008,” said Mac BU General Manager Craig Eisler. “We’re successfully driving toward our internal goal to RTM in mid-December 2007, and believe our customers will be very pleased with the finished product.”

As the Mac BU moves closer to the product launch, Microsoft will share more details about features and exact timing.

More information at the Mac BU’s Mac Mojo blog at http://blogs.msdn.com/macmojo

Now then…what Microsoft could have said in their press release, instead, is this:

“Office 2008 for Mac, which we previously said would ship in the second half of 2007, has been delayed until January 2008. We ran into some unexpected problems, and we now realize we can’t get this out as soon as we said. We apologize for any inconvenience this delay may cause. We hope our customers will find the final product to be worth the wait.”

See how much better that is? It’s easy: just plain English. No weasel words, but no protracted pseudo-explanations either. Just: “Look, stuff happens. It happened. We’re sorry. Here’s the new plan.” And yet, with those few words, you acknowledge that there’s a difference between what you said and what you’re doing, that that is in fact a bad thing that you wish hadn’t happened, and that you understand why people might be a bit upset with you.

Why is that so hard? Why can’t a company bring itself to admit any fault, however minor, to say they feel badly about something? It’s OK, really. Your customers will forgive you. What customers should not forgive is marketing speak. I don’t cry over spilled milk. I cry over “The erstwhile contents of the glass have been redistributed in a more horizontal fashion. This was a business decision based on gravitational forces. Information on forthcoming moisture containment strategies and potential new sources of dairy products will be made available by mid-January 2008.”