Microsoft’s Mac Business Unit (MBU) “has been hard at work on the first new Office for Mac release in four years, and one that’s been designed to take on Apple’s iWork apps. Although the programs are still Carbon, rather than Cocoa, they now combine the look-and-feel of OS X 10.5 with some of the innovations Microsoft introduced in Office 2007, like the ribbon,” Jonathan M. Gitlin reports for Ars Technica.

Gitlin takes a look at the Mac Office 2008 versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Entourage:

Word: New features are in keeping with Microsoft’s aim of allowing users to create better looking documents more easily and, combined with the new Publishing Layout View, points to Microsoft taking a careful look at Pages and deciding that they liked what they saw. I might add that I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing; anything that makes an oft-used software tool better is a good thing, even if the idea was poached from somewhere else. Word also now supports OpenType, meaning that fonts finally look like they should with no need to mess about.

Excel: It’s not all roses. Microsoft has removed support for Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) from Office 2008, despite leaving it present in Office 2007, the Windows version. While this might not worry the casual spreadsheet user, anyone who uses highly customized files with lots of actions as part of their daily grind will be very poorly served by the transition to 2008. Perhaps the easiest workaround would be to run Office 2007 via Parallels. At a guess, this would be Microsoft’s preferred solution, since it means a sale of both Windows and Office 2007, but that kind of defeats the point of having a Macintosh version of the suite if you ask me.

• PowerPoint: As with the new additions to Word that suggest the MBU has been paying attention to iWork, PowerPoint 2008 also shows the signs of lessons learned from the competition.

Entourage: Apple’s Mail, iCal, and Address Book have many fans, but Entourage isn’t as bad as it’s often made out to be. And if you need to use Exchange for your e-mail, then really it’s your only choice for an e-mail program… Integration with Exchange might not be quite as feature-replete as our PC-using cousins enjoy via Outlook, but I’ve found the experience utterly painless. Shared calendars work perfectly, and global address books show up, although I’ve found that these can take some time to display.

Gitlin reports, “The Mac Business Unit has looked at what others, notably Apple, have brought to the table with competitor applications, and they’ve incorporated some of the best elements into Office. And if they haven’t consciously done that, then the end result is still the same. The applications are better looking, and produce better looking documents too… That it does that in just the way you’d want a great Macintosh program to behave is good news for Office workers.”

Much more, including reams of screenshots, in the full article here.