Steve Jobs, MS Office, Israel, and a basic feature Microsoft took 13 years to install

Right-to-Left script Mac omission finally fixed

tropeR laicepS You know the cliches: software is always late, and some features take longer to implement than others. The software feature you’re about to read about has only taken 13 years to implement, and turned out to be one of the most politically explosive we’ve ever covered.

Cast your mind back to the beginning of 2002. Apple was in the midst of a transition from its decrepit Mac OS 9 to the shiny new Mac OS X, based on the code it had acquired when Steve Jobs’ NeXT engineered a reverse takeover of Apple. Mac OS X was years late, and many features were missing.

For some 280m native Arabic speakers and some 9m Hebrew speakers and scholars, a problem loomed. Microsoft didn’t support either right-to-left language in the Mac versions of its Internet Explorer or its Office products. This might have suited Microsoft, as it helped sell more Windows PCs, but it didn’t suit people who wanted to support Arabic or Hebrew, and use a Mac.

It was an odd state of affairs. Microsoft had been the first major vendor to support the original Mac, but had let its support languish. The Mac Office at the time (the latest was Office:Mac 2001) showed signs of some renewed love and investment, but language support was still spotty. Zulu and Portuguese were supported, but Russian, Korean and Arabic were not.

A law student and senior sysadmin at Israel's Bar-Illan University, Dov Cohen, was getting pretty fed up. He formed a group, the National Academic Macintosh Administrators, to press for Hebrew support in Microsoft products. Behind the scenes, Cohen was doing more than just complaining. He was on good terms with the Apple distie in Israel, Yeda Computers, and Microsoft Israel. Yeda had localised the Windows version of Office to support Hebrew, and had approached Microsoft Israel several times, asking it to localise the Mac products, without success.

Microsoft had made similar deals before to provide language support. Redmond had invested in Zeine Technologies in Amman, Jordan to localise for Arabic, even though Zeine sold a competing Mac word processor. This time Cohen and Yeda’s CEO Itzik Radishkovitz offered to localise Mac Office for Hebrew for a million shekels (around $250,000) and preordering a couple of thousand copies.

But there was never going to be a Hebrew Office, Microsoft told them, because the business case didn’t add up.

So Cohen fired off an antitrust complaint to the Israeli competition authority, arguing that the refusal to localise for Hebrew was anti-competitive.

“If they'll localize Microsoft Office Macintosh Edition to Hebrew, ordinary people (who are not graphic artists or musicians) will actually start buying Macs (affordable, better and good looking), since the only barrier – Hebrew word proccessing – wil, be ‘broken’. Israelis buying Macs means one thing – Less licenses for Windows being sold,” Cohen told us at the time. Cohen had previously tipped me off about another Mac story, but this one was incendiary.

And all hell broke loose.

It was a sensitive subject, not least for Steve Jobs, who was half Syrian. Mac OS X didn’t support Right to Left (RTL) languages, and wouldn’t until later that year. Apple sources told us that, as a result of our coverage of the issue, Jobs issued a don’t-speak-to-The Register command (a grudge which has outlived him, and endures to this day).

Microsoft insisted that localisation was more expensive than Cohen and Radishkovitz reckoned.

“Supporting languages like Hebrew would require extensive investment in the core programming code of Office, and require extensive testing and debugging in order to ensure a quality experience. This would require time and effort from people in Microsoft's Mac Business Unit -- people that we have working on projects which more dramatically benefit the broader Mac user community,” wrote Kevin Browne, head of Microsoft’s Mac Business Unit at the time.

“We're working with Apple to get what we need in the system, and will comment in the future on our plans. We do not plan to add right-to-left editing specifically, since we would have to delay releases or forego adding features which would apply to a broader range of customers,” Browne told us.

In 2003, the Israeli antitrust authority declared Microsoft a monopoly, triggering a major government IT procurement decision. That November, the Israeli Ministry of Commerce suspended all governmental contracts with Microsoft, and indicated that the ban would last for a while.

It came to an end after the Israeli Supreme Court ruled in September 2004 that Microsoft couldn’t be a monopoly because most of its sales were not directly made to customers.

But the years passed, and that was that. Lots of other things happened: social media, YouTube, the iPhone, LTE, and the cloud. But nothing that allowed Hebrew, Arabic and Urdu writers to use Microsoft Office on Apple computers. Office 2004 was superseded by Office 2008, which was superseded by Office 2011, and still no RTL support was forthcoming. Microsoft promised it would appear in Office 2016…. but when Office 2016 rolled out, RTL support wasn’t there.

Until last week.

Insider Build 15.20 for Office 2016 for Mac will finally support what so many users have been asking for: full Arabic and Hebrew support.

There’s even a picture to prove it.

We’ll just leave it there, and marvel. ®


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