Microsoft Office 2010: An Intriguing Beta

With the release of the Office 2010 beta, the general public finally gets to check out how Microsoft plans to deliver on its promises for the next edition of its flagship productivity suite--namely, close integration with lightweight Web versions of core apps (Excel and PowerPoint Web are the first to debut for consumers via Windows Live, with Word and OneNote available only in the business-oriented SharePoint 2010 server beta), better multimedia support, a subtle interface refresh, and a slew of features designed to make document creation and sharing easier. But there's some news too, most notably support within Outlook for tracking feeds from social networks.

[Related: Office 2010 Beta: A Visual Tour of What's New]

Suitewide, the most immediately apparent change is the departure of the round Office button that brought up commands for saving and printing documents as well as for changing application-specific settings. Instead, Microsoft returns to a familiar menu convention: a File tab that brings up a full screen of commands and information. Microsoft calls this screen the Backstage View.

The left navigation bar in Backstage View holds many of the commands, but most of the real estate is devoted to big panes filled with document-specific items such as editing permissions, links to autosaved versions, file size, and even a thumbnail. (Businesses can customize Backstage View to integrate their workflow processes.) It's a nice idea in many ways--the ability to return to previous unsaved versions is especially good--but it can also be a bit disconcerting since you completely lose sight of the original document (except for the tiny thumbnail).

One of the cooler suitewide tweaks affects a simple task that most people perform every day: cutting and pasting text. Having observed that in many instances users immediately undo their paste, Microsoft engineers have added a paste-preview feature that lets you see the results before you commit (similar to the mouse-over previews of font changes and other edits available in the ribbon). You even get to choose between previews that apply different formatting options, either maintaining source formatting, merging with destination formatting, or removing all formatting.

Improved picture-editing tools allow you to preview and apply cropping (and many new adjustments and effects) on the fly as you insert images into Office documents.

The ribbon interface introduced in the key Office 2007 apps goes suitewide in Office 2010, with more contextual changes. Application icons are chunkier and restricted to one letter, which invites confusion in the case of PowerPoint and Publisher, and bemusement in the case of Outlook and OneNote (the latter's icon is the letter N, one leg of which looks like a 1).

Other interface changes include a new color scheme, with classy muted grays that make the sky blues of past editions seem almost boisterous, and an orange logo instead of the multicolored one of years past.

Next: Web apps, plus the new Starter Edition

Web Applications

The Office Web Apps collection, Microsoft's eagerly awaited answer to Google Docs, Zoho, and other Web-based productivity tools, is still a work in progress--not surprising since the current apps are prominently labeled as technical previews. Microsoft says that all of them will be finalized and available--to consumers via SkyDrive (Microsoft's free online file storage service) and to businesses via SharePoint 2010 server software--when Office 2010 ships in the first half of 2010.

However, judging from the preview versions I tried through a SharePoint site that Microsoft set up for reviewers (and through the technical beta program on SkyDrive), they're no match for the competition. For example, Excel can't create charts, Word has no support for revision mode, and the slide-creation tools in PowerPoint pale next to the wealth of choices in Zoho Show.

SharePoint's interface for document sharing isn't particularly intuitive: You can't create new documents on the Web (although Microsoft says eventually you'll be able to)--instead you must upload them from desktop apps. And regardless of location (SharePoint or Windows Live), Office Web Apps will work only with documents in Microsoft's XML file formats (.docx, .xlsx, and so on). But in my tests, at least, Office Web Apps generally delivered on fidelity, meaning that what you see online is what you get on the desktop and vice versa, which isn't always the case with other Web apps that support the Office formats.

[Related: Office 2010 Beta: A Visual Tour of What's New]

Though all Windows Live users will have access to Office Web Apps, the offerings' lack of features suggests that Microsoft isn't trying to create a Web-based productivity ecosystem so much as it is attempting to give customers a Microsoft option for basic editing when they don't have access to the desktop software.

Starter Edition

Other news relates to how Office 2010 will be delivered on new PCs. Instead of the free limited-period trial commonly available now, Microsoft will make a free, ad-supported Office Starter Edition available to PC manufacturers (this will replace Microsoft's low-end Works suite, too).

But it's a stripped-down freebie, consisting of basic versions of Word and Excel that each lack three of the seven tabbed main-menu items in the full versions. In Starter, Word won't have the Reference, Review, and View tabs; Excel will omit Reference, Review, and Data. Both apps will have a taskbar on the right side containing a small ad toward the bottom for the full versions of Office.

More annoyingly, because the Starter apps don't support revision mode, you won't be able to accept, reject, or even delete revisions in documents created in the full versions of Office, which renders Starter Edition useless for any sort of collaboration.

Available Packages

Microsoft is offering the 64-bit version of Office alongside the 32-bit version; you can make your choice during installation. The additional addressable memory that 64-bit PCs and apps support will primarily benefit people who work with huge spreadsheets.

Generally we liked the innovations of Office 2007 (although many other people did not). In this new version, Microsoft has made a lot of usability and design improvements that individually may not bowl anyone over, but as a package--especially as the Web apps mature--are solid and welcome. No pricing has been revealed for the editions announced earlier this year: Office Home and Student (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote), Office Home and Business (which adds Outlook), Office Professional (which adds Access and Publisher on top of the rest), and the two volume-licensing editions, Office Standard (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, OneNote, and Publisher) and Office Professional Plus (which builds on Standard by adding Business Contact Manager CRM features to Outlook, as well as Access, InfoPath, Communicator, SharePoint Workspace, and other enterprise-specific extras).

If Microsoft doesn't make the cost of upgrading from 2007 prohibitive, I'd be inclined to move up to this new Office.

Next: A look at the individual applications

Word 2010

In the venerable word processor, OpenType typography takes the spotlight in an Advanced font pane that supports new font-manipulation options, such as the ability to add ligatures and to choose from several style sets. For more-adventurous designers, a new Text Effects pane lets you apply artistic effects (fills, outlines, and the like) to any text--and still edit the text afterward, which you can't do with the Word Art in previous versions. (These features also appear in Publisher 2010.)

[Related: Office 2010 Beta: A Visual Tour of What's New]

Searching documents becomes easier with an upgraded Navigation bar that appears on the left when you initiate a search. Results from keyword searches appear highlighted in the main screen (a nicer experience than clicking Next to jump from location to location).

Excel 2010

Microsoft continues to expand and refine the visualization tools in its popular spreadsheet application. The biggest innovation is a feature called Sparklines that lets you create miniature charts within a single cell, a way to instantly show multiple trends across several contiguous data sets. For sophisticated users, PivotTables and PivotCharts allow you to create highly customizable tables and charts from existing data sets with a few mouse clicks. While PivotCharts aren't new to Excel, the ability to create filters on the fly is.

PowerPoint 2010

If you're giving a presentation to an army of laptop users, wouldn't it be nice if your presentation could appear--while still under your control--on the laptop displays of your audience (or, perhaps, on desktops in the room)? PowerPoint Broadcast Service, one of the more impressive PowerPoint innovations, lets you accomplish this with a minimum of fuss and nothing to install. Simply click on the Broadcast Slide Show button in the Slide Show ribbon, and PowerPoint uploads your presentation to Microsoft's free service and creates a link for distribution (via e-mail or copying) to your audience members. They then click on the link and see in their browser the same slideshow view that you do--with you driving.

Embedding video in a presentation requires only a click or two, whether you're drawing from your own library or a site such as YouTube. Presentations using a Web video will warn you about the necessity of a live Internet connection; if you use your own video, PowerPoint permits you to edit it down to a desired length, add fade-ins and fade-outs, and otherwise perform minor editing tasks before packing it up with the presentation.

As usual, PowerPoint jocks also get assorted new transitions to play with. My faves include Ferris Wheel, Shred, and Vortex.

OneNote 2010

OneNote, Microsoft's note-taking application, has acquired new powers in Office 2010, primarily through the addition of conduits that relay data from (or otherwise link it to) other applications. Among other things, you can send documents to OneNote using Office's print function, which presents OneNote as an alternative to hardware printers, PDF creators, and the like. If you choose that option, a dialog box appears showing your OneNote file structure, so you can place the content in the right location.

You can also take notes in OneNote while working in Word, in PowerPoint, or on the Web. Clicking Linked Notes associates what you've written in OneNote to the location in the source document. Internet Explorer 8 has a similar feature, OneNote Linked Notes, under Tools (near the option to e-mail a page to OneNote).

Outlook 2010

Microsoft's personal information manager receives a ribbon that fans of that type of interface will like and detractors won't. Several additional tweaks (support for transcription of voicemail, for example) depend on use of Microsoft Exchange and/or Communicator, but everyone can benefit from other new features such as a calendar preview (to check for conflicts when receiving invitations).

More-dramatic changes are in Business Contact Manager, with assorted features designed to manage not only customers but also projects. Potentially the biggest news is Outlook Social Connector, a feature that's supposed to let you follow status updates from third-party social networks that create feeds using Microsoft APIs. The feeds will appear on the e-mail reading screen.

Access 2010

Microsoft continues to fight the good fight to make its database app more, well, accessible. In addition to new templates to help you get started, Access now offers Application Parts and Quick Start features to help you create database forms by picking and choosing the fields and features you need.

And while it isn't listed with other Office Web Apps, Access now lets you create a Web database, either from scratch or by importing an existing one. This feature, however, depends on SharePoint support.

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