Call it serendipity. As I was working through my review of OpenOffice.org 3.1 and SoftMaker Office 2008, an early version of the Community Technology Preview (CTP) of Microsoft Office 2010 was conveniently leaked to the Internet. Sporting mostly incremental improvements, Office 2010 serves to bridge the gap between the Vista and Windows 7 eras by streamlining the product's controversial Ribbon-based user interface and extending it to encompass the full range of Office applications.
The most visible manifestation can be found in Microsoft Outlook. Gone is the "hybrid" UI where new Ribbon elements were isolated to client forms (e-mail message windows, calendar appointments, and so on) and where the main Outlook window retained the earlier Office 2003 UI. In its place is a new, four-tab Ribbon that helps to surface much of Outlook's hidden workflow power while bringing the overall user experience in line with the rest of the suite. Add to this some much needed Windows 7 Jump List integration and suddenly Outlook feels less like the neglected stepchild of the Office world and more like the well-integrated cog it has always longed to be.
[ Take an InfoWorld guided tour of the usability improvements in Office 2010. Compare leading Office alternatives, SoftMaker Office 2008 and OpenOffice.org 3.1. ]
During testing under Windows Vista, I was pleased to discover the Junk Email options displayed prominently on the primary Ribbon surface. With Outlook 2007, these options were buried within the Actions menu, prompting me to create a custom toolbar button, Block Sender, as my first act upon visiting a newly minted Office installation. Another neat feature, Quick Steps, allows you to stitch together a series of common actions and to assign them as a single button to a dedicated section of the primary Ribbon surface. It's a great way to streamline repetitive tasks, like moving all messages from "email@example.com" to a specific folder, without requiring that you define a custom rule or macro. Simply click through your selections in the Quick Step dialog, adding or subtracting new actions as necessary.
Microsoft has also tweaked the overall Office Ribbon experience, bringing its layout and structure in line with the newly standardized Ribbon objects from the Windows 7 SDK. By far the biggest change is the removal of the funky round Office "orb" buttons. They've been replaced by the more staid-looking Application button first introduced with the "Ribbonized" Paint and WordPad applications from the Windows 7 betas.
The layout of the underlying button menu has also changed. Each Office application now sports a customized, window-spanning alternative view that combines information about the currently selected object (document, spreadsheet, e-mail message) with various actions and application-level configuration options. It's a clever way to eliminate one of the few remaining vestiges of Office's nested menu-driven past while serving to focus the user on the available actions or options. And since the view is context sensitive, it can adapt itself to match your current work status -- for example, switching its default display from a "recently opened files" view when working with a new and unsaved project to a comprehensive file info "dossier" view once you've saved the data to disk.
Of course, one of the biggest changes involves the product's core underpinnings. For the first time, Microsoft is offering a 64-bit version of Office. It's a clear nod to the success of the x64 edition of Windows Vista and tacit recognition of the fact that the 32-bit world's days are indeed numbered. And while I doubt that many casual users will feel a need to stretch Office's newfound 64-bit legs, I can think of a few Wall Street shops that will be thrilled to get their hands on an even beefier Excel for running those multigigabyte Monte Carlo simulations they just can't live without.
This story, "First Look: Microsoft Office 2010's Incremental Improvements" was originally published by InfoWorld.